On March 14, the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public (CIP) held a conference for hundreds of local high schoolers to educate students about the importance of media literacy and identifying misinformation at the university’s Husky Union Building. Dubbed “Misinfo Day,” the event was hosted in partnership with the Washington State University’s journalism school, following smaller misinformation conferences at WSU’s Pullman and Vancouver campuses earlier that month.
Misinfo Day attendees listened to remarks from CIP staff, played a misinformation escape room game and participated in a variety of workshops related to topics such as fact checking, data analysis and social media. Organizers hoped that the event would help strengthen students’ media literacy skills so that they could better distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources.
Some examples of misinformation that were discussed included Instagram posts that perpetuate toxic diet culture and viral assessments of the efficacy and safety of pharmaceutical products by TikTok “experts.” They also covered how data can be presented in misleading ways depending on how it is visualized.
Liz Crouse, the program coordinator for the CIP, organized the logistics of the event. When the CIP was founded in 2019, Crouse was a UW graduate student in library sciences. As a former middle school teacher, Crouse said that she wanted to incorporate some of the research and tools she learned in her master’s program in the classroom.
“I didn’t feel like we were teaching students to evaluate information very well,” Crouse said.
Crouse’s capstone project was the inaugural 2019 Misinfo Day. Due to COVID-19, the conference was held virtually the following three years before returning in person this year. Crouse said that every year brought increased interest in the topic and how educators can play a role in promoting media literacy within schools. This year, registration for the event filled up well before the deadline, suggesting that resources around misinformation were in high demand.
“My hope is that every Washington teacher would be able to either get to an event or go on our [online] library of content they can do in their classroom and find something that they’re like, ‘Yes, this would be great, I’ll do this for my Misinfo Day in my classroom,’” Crouse said. “I also hope that other universities will become partner institutions.”
Jevin West, an associate professor with the UW Information School and cofounder of the CIP, said that teaching misinformation education to youth made a lot of sense because younger generations are more familiar with online content.
“We’re able to learn from high schoolers. They’re digital natives. They actually, to be honest, know a little bit more about this sometimes than the older adults,” West said.
West added that, while misinformation has proliferated rapidly with the precipitous rise of social media and other online platforms, the research and pedagogy around this phenomenon has not caught up.
“We want to give students and the public the skills to be able to question things that might not be right online,” West said. “And by the way, it’s not just intentional misinformation out there. It’s not always someone with nefarious intent. A lot of times it’s just the way rumors evolve, and so we have to come up with ways to become better at identifying when something should be questioned.”
One of the tough issues students grappled with is how governments should address misinformation on social media. For example, after billionaire Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, he fired much of the misinformation and governance units at the social media company. This backsliding by Twitter should prompt governments to take a closer look at regulations against misinformation, West said.
“It’s not like it’s super novel for the government to get involved in a major industry,” West said. “I mean, we see it in biotech, we see it in anything like manufacturing, we see it in health and food safety. This is a big part of society now, and yet it doesn’t have anywhere near the oversight that other industries have had for decades.”
Of course, the trickiest thing with addressing misinformation on the policy level is the political controversy around it. For example, President Joe Biden’s April 2022 announcement of a task force on misinformation was criticized by his Republican opponents and privacy groups as potentially leading to censorship. West stressed that any regulatory change would need to be nonpartisan or it wouldn’t succeed.
For the CIP, educational efforts like Misinfo Day can help make change immediately by inoculating students from the worst forms of misinformation.
Ballard High School history teacher Shawn Lee first got involved with Misinfo Day in 2019. He said that students were very receptive to the CIP’s curriculum.
“There’s so many things within the information space that really feed your biases, your beliefs, the things you’re passionate about, your prejudices, and to have students be aware of that I think is super important,” Lee said. “To be aware that these platforms are really interested in just keeps you engaged, and they’re not interested in informing you … and the way to keep you engaged is by appealing to your prejudices and biases and preferences and outrages.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Mar. 22-28, 2023 issue.