Finnish-ing Off Fake News
Despite each successive generation being more online and interconnected than the last, teaching on how to use the Internet mindfully seems to have been forgotten in many school curriculums allowing disinformation to roam free. Given that a recent study found that only 2% of children and young people are able to effectively determine if they are reading fake news, it is increasingly evident that we cannot simply allow young people to ‘figure it out’ themselves; as youths are exposed to more sources of information online than ever before, it is imperative that they understand how to process and filter what they read as early as possible.
Finding effective long-term solutions to disinformation is a topic that is gaining traction with governments and organisations across the world. Some have posed legislating against falsehoods online which has received cries of silencing freedom of speech; others have suggested algorithmically analysing content which has been slated for the risk of bias; others have countered by suggesting that human volunteers manually fact check information which has been likened to free labour. Evidently we are yet to find a solution that maintains freedom of expression without allowing falsehoods to perpetuate; that shoots down disinformation campaigns early without policing open discussion.
Some however believe in a more foundational solution, that teaching individuals from a young age on how to fact-check and apply critical thinking could be the key to solving the issue. The Nordic countries (such as Finland, Sweden, Denmark etc.) are leading the charge in this area, integrating anti-disinformation teaching directly into the curriculum. The approach adopted in Finland goes far beyond simply labelling a piece of media as ‘disputed’, pupils are asked to really analyse the information they are presented with: Who is the author? What agendas might they have? What evidence is there for the claims made? It is this approach that forces individuals to evaluate what they are looking at, rather than outsourcing analysis to an algorithm, that allows pupils to begin to meaningfully determine if what they are reading, hearing, and watching is real or not.
Of course educating on disinformation does not simply aid with combating lies and falsehoods online, in doing so individuals naturally develop critical thinking skills that have a vast area of applications in their day-to-day lives. As Kar Kivinen, head teacher at a college in Helsinki Finland, states:
“The goal is active, responsible citizens and voters. Thinking critically, fact checking, interpreting and evaluating all the information you receive wherever it appears, is crucial.”
This focus on being mindful of the content we consume looks to be working as the annual OSI Media Literacy Index found that Nordic countries rank as the highest in Europe for media literacy. These high ratings are not contentious across Europe either, there is a noticeable drop once we leave the Nordic region with Germany (62), the UK (62), and France (57) all sitting at 9 or more points below that of Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands (78, 72, and 71 respectively). There are signs of progress elsewhere however, the state of Illinois in the US recently passed a law mandating the teaching of media literacy in high schools, an excellent step forward.
While improving media literacy does show promising signs of preventing disinformation spreading online, it is unlikely that we’ll ever completely eradicate these attacks. There will almost always be some new way to persuade others into sharing false content. However by tackling the issue from as young an age as possible we can cultivate a society better equipped to effectively notice, review, and respond to falsehoods online.