How can we help students navigate through a world of misinformation? Roy White provides schools with some practical ideas.
Misinformation and student perceptions
This article aims to provoke student reflection, discussion and action concerning the use of propaganda and other forms of misinformation that deliberately distort perceptions of events and promote discord between and across communities. Although the context is the war in Ukraine, the questions and ideas presented are also offered as a catalyst for creating a better and more peaceful world by securing a more trustworthy media for us all.
“If you believe in something, you must not just think or talk or write, but must act.”
(Alex Peterson, as cited in IBO, 2010)
Students and teachers around the world are currently discussing the pretext for the conflict in Ukraine and seeking ways to help mitigate against the effects of this war on the region and beyond. The kindness, generosity, and collegiality shown by many individuals, groups and governments have been a model for student action, and we should be gratified by the those who are united in caring for displaced people and ending this war. Schools will need to provide long term support for the wellbeing of the child refugees while helping them to learn. Beyond this, we must examine the causes of such conflict and take whatever steps we can, to prevent such wars from happening in the future.
Through the lens of this conflict, we clearly see that there are leaders today who consciously manipulate and restrict information to distort our perceptions of their actions and to provoke mistrust, discord, and violence. Although social media has made it easier for ‘citizen journalists’ to counter propaganda, this war demonstrates that our modern media and communication technologies also facilitate and embolden those who wish to cascade mistruths.
This misuse of information poses a clear and present danger to our peace, security, and general happiness. We must therefore seek to understand and minimize its affects in connection with all other Global Issues that require our action (Brown, 2022). As with all complex and challenging international issues we will need the ingenuity and support of peoples across the globe to secure and execute the most effective and innovative strategies (Matic and Matic, 2022).
Educators have a key role to play in raising awareness of such issues. Thus, this article contains questions, background information, and suggestions, that teachers can use to provoke student reflection, debate, and action. To start this process a non-fiction account of a conversation is used to highlight just one of the many related challenges that we face connected with the misuse and manipulation of information.
Changing Perceptions is Difficult
“Does she really need to leave the country? The army will soon be there to help. They will stop the Ukrainian Nazis from attacking other Ukrainians.” (7 March 2022)
These are the words of a parent of a school leader in South America who has just called to discuss his ‘dilemma’. For weeks he has become more and more concerned for the safety of his relatives living in the Ukraine. He is particularly worried for his cousin who is caring for her one-year-old daughter, and her father who has a brain tumor.
Today, this colleague happily informed me that not only had his cousin and daughter made it to Warsaw but in “thirty minutes” they would be landing safely in a more northerly European city. I asked him if they had a place to live. He said,
“This is the problem. My cousin and daughter are to stay with one of my parents, who has been watching only state media from a country nearby. This parent has no idea about the dreadful situation in Ukraine and cannot understand why my cousin has had to leave. Although, I have tried explaining some of the details, I have not had much luck penetrating my parent’s current understanding. I think the planned living arrangements are not going to work.”
There are others who share this perspective of the war, and many more who have developed ‘alternative versions of reality’ in relation to other world events and issues.
Internationally minded educators must accept that people from other cultures will have different views, opinions, and attitudes, but this does not mean we have to accept relativistic truth, in which any idea, however unjustified, is to be deemed as having merit. While teachers must always aim to be objective, and must carefully respect cultural differences, we have a responsibility to help our students to construct versions of reality that correct for falsely manufactured realities. In short “There is no point in [the teacher] being more mature if…” we are not going to use that insight to help students construct truth (Dewey, 1958).
As my colleague discovered during his conversations within his parent, it can be rather difficult to change someone’s views. McGee (2017) explains that if one “…holds a false belief and faces a competing true belief, the strain of cognitive dissonance may cause them to prefer retaining their existing false belief over rewriting their belief system.” It is easy to understand why changing the perspective of this parent would therefore be so difficult, as it might require the parent to re-examine the high levels of trust they have placed on the media and government. We concluded that although it was important to try, it was unlikely this parent would change their views quickly.
In the end, my colleague decided that his cousin and her daughter should live with him and his family in South America. He flew this week to that northern city to pick them up.
Problems with Our Marketplace for Truth
My colleague and I wondered what educators could be doing, to help lessen the impact of propaganda and other false narratives placed in the public domain.
US Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1919), stated that “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market…”.
His definition of truth has two key prerequisites:
- that we have access to competing narratives and proactively look for them, and
- we have the capacity and willingness to evaluate such narratives.
Unfortunately, we seem unable to meet either of these two requirements. We must first have access to information. Although in principle the UDHR affords us this freedom, unfortunately there are many governments today that regularly restrict access. Even in more democratic regions, where access should be freely available, the rise of populist movements, hinders free access by permitting only one perspective to dominate. In populist politics it appears that truth becomes that which is:
- offered first,
- communicated in very simplistic terms and linked with fear,
- repeated several times, and/or
- offered by an authority figure.
Populists, typically rely on a single source for their news. In this way, they eliminate the possibility of any cognitive dissonance, and instead feel emboldened and comforted by hearing the echoing voices of their own strongly held beliefs (Brooks, 2020).
Even if people are made aware of more than one competing narrative, there must be a general willingness to evaluate them to make an informed judgement. Unfortunately, once a ‘first truth’ has been accepted, we seem very unwilling to consider alternatives, even if the original idea is shown later to be illogical, dangerous, or contrary to our supposed values.
As McGee (2017) suggests, one of the reasons for this is that it may require us to abandon a deeper set of beliefs.
Today, truth seems to have become tribal (Brooks, 2020). People will take a political stance and then no matter what perspective the leaders from their selected political group may proffer, they will support it, for fear of having to abandon their deep-rooted belief in their politics.
Even if the tribal nature of our politics did not exist, our modern world offers fewer opportunities for critically reflection. Within our world of, tweets and short text messages, and without deep conversations at the dinner table, there seems to be far less opportunity to reflect deeply on issues, our values and to evaluate political positions.
In short, the marketplace envisaged by Justice Holmes no longer seems to exist for establishing verifiable truth. Consequently, we risk furthering and deepening already entrenched positions, exacerbating disharmony, and making it easier for conflicts both within and across communities to take root.
The passage from Justice Holmes (1919) goes on to say that this marketplace definition of truth, although a basis for the American Constitution, “… is an experiment, as all life is an experiment”. We have had over thirty years of this experiment and we must either find an alternative model for truth or find a way for people to be afforded sources for news which are more professionally and ethically produced.
Suggested Student Activities and Actions
The following are a few suggestions to be used as a catalyst for discussions within and outside our school communities. The overall aim of our discussions and actions should be to ensure for a better and more peaceful world by reflecting on the problems connected with our modern media, communication, and truth.
- How are we as educators and students helping to reduce conflict, disharmony, and mistrust? What more can we do?
- Is it possible to counter the effects of government propaganda?
- Are levels of government control and propaganda on the rise? Or have we always had to face the consequences of such control and manipulation?
- How can social media be transformed to reduce conflict, bullying, and hate speech? Should it be transformed? Is this not the price we pay for free speech?
- Does balanced reporting require the sharing of extreme views? If not balanced reporting, then what other principle(s) should guide journalism? How can we be assured that across the globe these principles are maintained? Is journalistic idealism naïve?
- How do we balance the right to free expression with the right for people to live in peace?
- What can schools do to ensure that young people are better equipped to evaluate sources and protected from propaganda? How can they help us to set higher standards for discourse and journalism?
- What can the United Nations, Drama Schools, Journalists, and others do, to help improve the quality of journalism and the honesty in what is presented by leaders of our community?
Provocations for Debate and Student Action:
Section A: Take a Stand
The Project Zero Thinking Routine, ‘Take a Stand’ can be used with the following examples to initiate deep discussions of issues related to this article. The Educators Guide provides other age-appropriate ideas that can be used directly or refined to better align with our focus on misinformation and the media.
- “The Protest”. The journalist Marina Ovsyannikova held up a sign behind her colleague during a live broadcast criticizing the war in Ukraine. Marina was arrested and could face 15 years in prison for spreading ‘fake news’. In the weeks prior to her actions, her government introduced new legislation restricting journalists in their reporting of events in the Ukraine. Their rationale for this legislation was to “…protect our soldiers, officers, and the truth” (Aljazeera, 2022). The mother of a soldier killed in the Ukraine believes a harsh punishment for this journalist is warranted as she has broken the law and discredited her son and others fighting for their country. Should Ms. Ovsyannikova’s be imprisoned? Why/Why not?
- Is free speech ‘protected’ by the UDHR?
- Does a country have the right to restrict free speech in matters of national security?
- Have democratic countries such as Canada, UK, and France ever restricted such freedoms? If so, in what context? Do you agree with such restrictions?
(Further reading: The Spycatcher case)
- “Extremes”. During the 1968 Democratic Convention one of the major American networks decided that to provide a ‘balance’ in reporting and to generate interest they would broadcast live a debate between the extremely liberal writer Gore Vidal and the extremely conservative intellectual and political commentator, William F. Buckley Jr. Many networks today provide similar opportunities for polarized commentators to share their views. Does such a process ensure for balanced and more objective reporting?
Does such polarisaton within our media insight violence? Should, TV programmes provide opportunities for extreme voices to be heard? Would it make any difference in your answer if there is an opportunity for a lengthy formalized debate or just a short commentary of views on mainstream media? Should we allow racists, holocaust deniers, and others to present their views? Are there groups/individuals that should not be offered airtime? Why/Whynot? Where do you draw the line?
- “A UN 24-Hour News Channel”: There are many countries that continue to restrict access or control information within their respective countries. The UDHR proffers the right to access of information, but it does not protect this right. Considering that the United Nations was established specifically to ensure for peace and security amongst nations, should it establish its own 24-hour media outlet? Would this set the standard for ethical journalism? Should governments be required to allow its citizens free and unfettered access to this station? Do you think that such a channel could ever be established? Why/Why not? Who would set the standards? How might a UN news Channel report on the situation in Ukraine?
- A UN History Guide: Governments know that once a young person has developed a particular view of an historical event, it is very difficult to change that view. Therefore, many countries will control access to certain historical documents and commentaries, and/or rewrite the narratives you might find in a textbook. In some cases, they will simply eliminate any comment about an issue altogether. Their aim is to control the perceptions of these events. Should the United Nations create for publication a definitive guide to historical events incorporating different perspectives and implications for these events? Should members of the UN General Assembly be required to offer their citizens unfettered access to this guide? Why/Why not?
Other Suggested School Actions
- Social media: Bullying, harassment, hate speech, fake news, and propaganda, can feature within social media platforms. Clear norms for posting content are needed to eliminate such socially inappropriate activities. Work with students in your class to establish such norms. Negotiate with other classes in your school to create an agreed set of norms and use these within the school.
- The Role of the Arts: The Arts have always been a powerful force for altering public opinion, and for helping people to reflect on prevailing views, opinions, and values of their communities and leaders.
a) Create an exhibition, production, performance, or competition that showcases the work of Artists, Choreographers, Poets, Writers, and Directors to help us to reflect on the dangers of propaganda, nationalism, populism, and/or xenophobia.
b) Create a lesson within your Art, Drama, Literature, History or PSE class which will similarly help us to reflect on these dangers.
- Norms for Communication: Schools must set norms for communicating inside and outside of the school, including norms for online and offline communication. International organizations should help us to set world-wide standard for communication which amongst other requirements would ensure people use their real names when posting online and require them to justify their opinions and ideas. School curriculums should require students to learn how to provide such justifications at an early age.
- Within your class establish a protocol for communication with others. You might first study models for communication such as those from Eric Berne (Transaction Analysis) or Bruce Tuckman (Stages of group Development).
- Share this protocol with others in the school and negotiate a similar protocol to be used with others outside of the school.
- Student Agency: Write emails/letters to those media outlets, journalists, companies, and political leaders who have failed to live up to the standards expected for truth. Publicize your letters and responses within your community.
- Curriculum Leaders: Design courses which will help young people understand the reasons for establishing communication norms, and which highlight the many problems that we face including bullying, fraud, propaganda, and anxiety. Create films or dramas to provide insight into the methods, purpose and feelings associated with such activities.
- TEDTalk: Create a school Tedtalk which highlights tensions between rights to freedom of speech and the right for governments to ensure for harmony within their communities. Enable broad discussions and debates on related issues such as propaganda, the misuse of the modern media, the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence on Fake News, and other related topics.
The quote by Alec Peterson at the start of this article recognizes that there are times when me must act. ‘While we may start by having opportunities to think, to write and to reflect, educators across the globe have a duty to help us take the necessary steps which will lead to a better and more peaceful world. We must therefore initiate conversations connected with the misuse, manipulation, and control of our modern media.
This issue should be the keynote topic for educational conferences once COVID restrictions have ended.
Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)
Aljazera (2022), ‘Russia’s parliament approves jail for ‘fake’ war reports’ [Online] Available at:
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/4/russia-prison-media-law-fake-reports-ukraine-war(Accessed 15 March 20220)
Bath University (2020), ‘How tribalism polarized the Brexit social media debate’[Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1mTHswNaAw (Accessed 15 March 2022)
BBC (2008) ‘World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, Video Documentary, Laurence Reese and Andrew Williams
Brandies, L. (1913), ‘What Publicity Can Do’ , Harper’s Weekly, 20 December 1913, [Online] Available at: http://3197d6d14b5f19f2f4405e13d-29c4c016cf96cbbfd197c-579b45.r81.cf1.rackcdn.com/collection/papers/1910/1913_12_20_What_Publicity_Ca.pdf (Accessed 8 March 2022)
Brooks, M. (2020), ‘Here's Why Tribalism Trumps Truth: We like to think that we are reasonable, but our politics show otherwise.’, Psychology Today, [Online] Available at:https://thinkingmuseum.com/2021/03/17/how-to-use-zoom-in-thinking-routine-in-art-discussions/(Accessed 14 March 2022)
Brown, K. (2022), ‘5 GLOBAL ISSUES TO WATCH IN 2022, United Nations Foundation, [Online] Available at: https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/5-global-issues-to-watch-in-2022/(Accessed 14 March 2022)
Common Sense Education, ‘Take a Stand: Educator Guide’, Harvard University, Project Zero, Online] Available at: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Take%20a%-20Stand%20-%20Educator%20Guide.pdf (15 March 2022)Dewey, J. (1954).
Experience and education (The Kappa Delta Pi lecture series)New York: Macmillan. p. 23
Gordon, R. (2015), ‘The Fight that Changed Political TV Forever: Half a century ago, William Buckley and Gore Vidal brilliantly castigated each other on air. It’s been downhill ever since’, Politico magazine, [Online] Available at: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/04/william-buckley-gore-vidal-debates-1968-121009/ (Accessed 14 March 2022)
Harvard Graduate School of Education (2021) ‘Digital dilemmas Thinking Routine - Take a Stand -Resources’, Project Zero, [Online] Available at: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/resources/take-a-stand (Accessed 15 March 2022)
IBO (2010), ‘Creativity, action, service guide’, Peterson House, Malthouse Avenue, Cardiff Gate, Wales
IBO (2012), ‘International education: it’s time to think again: Teachers, and the IB, are going beyond flags and festivals, so how can educators create truly global teaching with a little uncommon thinking? [Online] Available at: https://www.ibo.org/ib-world-archive/september-2012/international-education-its-time-to-think-again/ (Accessed 15 March 2022)
Matic, G. and Matic, A. (2022),’ Collective Innovation for Complex Challenges: Engaging With Meta-Cognitive Skills and Patterns’, In Achieving Sustainability Using Creativity, Innovation, and Education: A Multidisciplinary Approach (pp. 69-96). IGI Global.
McGee, D. (2017) ‘The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ is a Failed Market’, [Online] Available at: https://medium.com/@danmcgee/the-marketplace-of-ideas-is-a-failed-market-5d1a7c106fb8 (Accessed 14 March 2022)
Morrissey L. (2017), ‘Alternative facts do exist: beliefs, lies and politics’, The Conversation [Online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/alternative-facts-do-exist-beliefs-lies-and-politics-84692(Accessed 14 March 2022)
Thinking Museum (2020), ‘How to use the Zoom in thinking routine in art lessons’, [Online] Available at: https://thinkingmuseum.com/2021/03/17/how-to-use-zoom-in-thinking-routine-in-art-discussions/(Accessed 14 March 2022)
 The ‘Zoom In’ thinking routine can get students used to the idea of having to adjust their hypothesis with new information. See: Thinking Museum (2020) . There are many other useful thinking routines from Harvard’s Project Zero.