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Teaching children to recognise disinformation

Discerning truth from falsehood and deliberate misinformation is becoming increasingly difficult as various interest groups compete to dominate the media space. Mark Potterton says that this poses a challenge for schools as they seek to encourage learners to develop critical thinking skills and to take an interest in the world around them.

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, UNESCO warned  that orchestrated misinformation campaigns about the virus, which pose a threat to fact-based journalism, were also putting human lives at risk.

Guy Berger, UNESCO’s communication expert and one of the agency’s pundits on disinformation, explained that falsehoods related to all aspects of COVID-19 have become commonplace: “There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the origin of the coronavirus, through to unproven prevention and ‘cures’, and encompassing responses by governments, companies, celebrities and others.”

He noted that heightened fears, uncertainties and unknowns are fertile ground for fake news to flourish and grow. The big risk is that one falsehood, which gains traction, can negate the significance of a body of true facts.

Berger argues that when disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the danger is that information based on truth only has marginal impact.

Berger’s answer to the problem is to improve the supply of truthful information and ensure that the demand for information is met by promoting greater transparency form governments and the disclosure of data in keeping with right to information laws.

Assessing the value of information begins in childhood

People have a lot to say about getting schools to work in South Africa and how to improve academic outcomes. However, these plans seldom equip pupils to become critical and discerning thinkers. I like the ideas of Neil Postman from his classic paper, “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection,” delivered at a teacher convention in 1969. I still find Postman’s ideas relevant for today’s context and the pupils I teach.

Postman argued that the best thing that schools can do for children ‘is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit’. Postman maintained that every day, in almost every way, people are exposed to more ‘bullshit’ than it is healthy for them. This comment is even more pertinent today in a world of mass media and exploding fake news on social media.

Postman argued that the best thing that schools can do for children ‘is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit’.

Although the world has become so interconnected, general knowledge and an awareness of current affairs are dismally low. Many pupils are unable to think beyond their immediate and personal concerns. Yes, literacy levels or the poor state of school toilets are important, but education must also concern itself with extending the horizons of the young people in their care. It begins with small steps. For example, primary school children need to know that by bringing in newspapers for recycling, they are indirectly reducing the pressure on forestry.

This becomes especially important in high school to counter a youth culture that is pervasively focused on self-satisfaction. Young people need to realise that the world they inhabit exists beyond themselves. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt put it very well:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Four kinds of disinformation

Let us go back to Postman and his valuable lessons from 1969. Children today are exposed to a lot more ‘bullshit’ than they were in 1969! If pupils improve their crap detection skills, they are more likely to be critical thinkers as adults.

Postman deals with four kinds of ‘bullshit’: pomposity, fanaticism, inanity and superstition. He argues that many people are daily victims of pomposity when they are they are made to feel less worthy than people with grandiose titles (or fly past in blue light brigades), or who use words that obscure what they really mean.

Fanaticism is more malignant. Postman used the term ‘Eichmannism’ — a reference to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi responsible for the Jewish death camps during World War II — to describe the presentation of an ideology that is devoid of any scientific basis: ‘The essence of fanaticism is that it has almost no tolerance for any data that do not confirm its own point of view’. It appeals to rules and obedience and places these above the common good.

Here, I am reminded of former ANC Secretary General Gwede Matashe’s strong defence of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to South Africa in 2015. The focus clearly shifted away from the issue of a wanted war criminal to the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, all couched in the language of diplomacy and diplomatic immunity.

Inanity is particularly relevant in our world of social media and radio talk shows where everyone has a voice (and an audience). Cyberspace is filled with people who are often in no position to provide informed perspectives. Postman described inanity as “ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity” that emerges from “the invention of new and various kinds of communication [that] has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues’.

New and various kinds of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues.

Finally, superstition is, according to Postman, ‘ignorance presented in the cloak of authority, or an authoritative belief with no factual or scientific basis’. The best current example is reflected by people who refuse to wear face masks, saying that they pose a greater health risk than COVID-19.

Combatting disinformation in the classroom

As a school principal I am regularly reminded that educational outcomes are important. Among these is the responsibility of getting pupils to engage critically and think more deeply about the world in which they find themselves.

The Marikana massacre is probably one of best South African examples of how to expose students to information and disinformation. Teachers can use Judge Falarm’s Marikana long report to ask questions like: Was it Lonmin mine’s responsibility to provide miners with adequate housing and security? What is being done to improve the miners’ situation today? What was the role of the police commissioner Riah Phyiega in the situation?

The challenge for schools is to help children become more critical of what is being presented to them online and elsewhere.

Pupils should be encouraged to view the Marikana disaster from the perspective of the miners, the widows, the mine bosses, the police, government or others. This forgotten report provides a challenging platform for school debate and engagement from an ethical point of view.

The challenge for schools is to help children become more critical of what is being presented to them online and elsewhere. They need to be less likely to believe, and spread, falsehoods.

Freedom of expression and access to credible information are two remedies to counter disinformation. Postman reminds us that ‘each pupil’s crap-detector is embedded in their value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values.’

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Mark Potterton
Mark Potterton is currently the primary school principal of Sacred Heart College, Observatory. He has taught in schools, a teachers’ training college and in universities. He served as National Director of the Catholic Institute of Education and worked at Umalusi as the Chief Operating Officer. He was part of the Ministerial Committee that looked at schools that work well in township and rural areas; as well as on a committee investigating teacher absenteeism in South Africa.

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