The misinformation myths every school needs to bust

In the five years we’ve been teaching children and teens how to evaluate digital information, we have found pupils using a variety of evaluation techniques that simply don’t work. Some of this is down to our very human biases and some down to misguided approaches being used by parents or teachers.

Some techniques are simply out of date – they were useful years ago but have failed to keep up with how sophisticated and nuanced misinformation has become. Others rely on skills which although important elsewhere in the curriculum are ineffective when it comes to digital media.

Not only do these approaches fail to help pupils, they also create a false sense of confidence – leaving the door open to scams, hoaxes and other harmful misinformation.

We’ve identified 13 myths. If every teacher and parent understands these, they’ll be better equipped to help youngsters make sense of the huge volume of information at their fingertips.

Myth #1
You can work out whether something is real by looking at it closely

In our workshops, we ask pupils whether various news stories, articles, images and videos are genuine. Without exception, they ALL zoom in on the content itself – scrutinising the pictures, examining the text, checking for anomalies or inconsistencies.

Pupils spend some considerable time weighing up whether something ‘looks’ trustworthy – yet this will not magically reveal the truth. It is, quite simply, a colossal waste of time.

So why do they do this?

Well, probably because this is what they have been taught to do. The current National Curriculum emphasises close-reading and retrieval skills – looking for evidence in the text and drawing inferences. This starts at primary level and continues throughout high school.

Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to tell if something online is genuine by examining it – however thoroughly. Digital manipulation techniques are too sophisticated for the naked eye. What’s needed are practical research skills and a knowledge of how to find credible information sources online.

One of the most valuable lessons we can teach children and teens is to read laterally – to look beyond the piece of content they are evaluating and use the internet to gather information and get a wider perspective. You can read up on useful techniques to do this in 12 habits every family should adopt.

TIP: Look beyond the page.

Myth #2
Use a checklist to evaluate online information

Media literacy resources may advocate the use of checklists to spot misinformation but many of them just haven’t kept up to date. For instance, the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose), uses a number of assessment criteria to check authenticity.

However, these are now staggeringly easy for any would-be scammer or hoaxer to meet. Looking to convey Authority? No problem, simply manufacture some impressive-sounding credentials and experience. Currency? Just add a feed to automatically update with your social media content. Purpose? Add a few key words like non-profit, unbiased, values-led and you’ll sound like one of the ‘good’ guys.

Again, these approaches keep pupils’ attention on the media being evaluated itself, which (as we’ve seen above) is ineffective.

TIP: Avoid outdated checklists.

Myth #3
Check for spelling, grammar or typographical mistakes

As well as out of date, many of the checking points on the CRAAP test – and others like it – are actively misleading. For example, looking for spelling or grammatical errors might have been helpful twenty years ago, but isn’t useful today.

Why? Years ago dodgy online content (scam emails, phishing websites) often originated from non-native English speakers overseas.

Today, digital tools are widely available to correct text and syntax. What’s more, a huge volume of misinformation now originates domestically and from other English-speaking countries. So although poorly-worded text still can be a red flag, being well written is absolutely not an indicator of reliable information.

TIP: Don’t let accurate spelling and grammar lull you into a false sense of security.

Myth #4
Check design, layout and quality of images

This is another hangover from the past that no longer holds true. It is now straightforward to create a really slick-looking website, email or post using one of the thousands of easy-to-use templates or apps. You can also craft a logo, download professional imagery, icons and other graphics – with no design experience and without spending a penny.

TIP: Don’t confuse great design with credibility.

Myth #5
Check the domain

Some pupils mistakenly believe that .org websites are more trustworthy than those with a .com suffix, having been told the latter are commercial and may try to sell you something. By this reasoning alone, many conspiracy, pseudoscience and hate sites could be deemed more trustworthy than The Wall Street Journal.

The reality is that any individual or organisation can buy a domain name for just a few pounds. The domain name tells us nothing about an unfamiliar organisation – however authoritative it may sound. At the time of writing, nhsfactcheck.org, nationalchildsafety.org and policechecks.co.uk were all available for less than a tenner…

TIP: Don’t be duped by domain names.

Myth #6
You can trust accounts with a blue tick

We’ve found that many youngsters believe that a blue tick on a social media account conveys credibility. This is not the case. It confirms that the identity of the account holder has been verified (i.e. they are the person/organisation they say they are), but their views and posts may still be wildly inaccurate or deceptive.

TIP: Be aware that a blue tick means an account has been verified – not the content.

Myth #7
Websites with the blue lock are reliable

Similarly, many children and teens think that the blue ‘lock’ symbol in a browser address bar makes a website trustworthy. In fact this symbol means that any data sent from your browser to the website is encrypted using HTTPS protocol. It doesn’t mean that the site is itself legitimate. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that your data is secure when it reaches the other end.

HTTPS protocol is cheap and easy to install and can easily feature on a phishing, scam or ‘fake news’ website – and often does! (There’s a great explanation of this here.)

TIP: Be aware that the blue lock only ensures your connection to a website is encrypted.

Myth #8
Check the date

We frequently see pupils looking for a date stamp on a piece of content. Although this will tell you when something was posted or updated (giving an indication of how current it is), it does not correlate with reliability. In fact, many websites pull in content from other sites using plug-ins or programmes to keep their content fresh and to push them higher up search engine results pages.

TIP: Remember currency isn’t credibility.

Myth #9
Google knows all

Children and teens see Google as all-knowing yet have little understanding of how its search results are generated, what personalisation is or how easily results pages can be manipulated.

They tend to trust the search engine, mistakenly believing that the higher up a result, the more reliable it is. Youngsters are often completely unaware that the top results are paid promotions – usually trying to sell something – even when distinguished by an ‘AD’ box.

Many pupils also assume that a human is involved somewhere along the line, checking the ‘answers’ Google provides. Consequently, they don’t scan the results ‘snippets’ for the most credible source, and so don’t consider the trustworthiness of sites whatsoever.

TIP: Learn how the world’s biggest information provider ranks results. [More on this in 12 habits…]

Myth #10
We can evaluate online information through critical questioning

While enormously valuable in many situations, critical questioning will not lead to information literacy. This is because when we reflect on a set of questions, we are referring mainly to our own pre-existing beliefs.

Most of us – whatever our age – assume that we are pretty good at detecting falsehoods, often relying on what our ‘gut’ tells us. Unfortunately, our gut is notoriously unreliable. For instance, we are more willing to believe things that are familiar or that offer a simple explanation, and tend to avoid ideas that take effort to accept.

It is simply not possible to tell if something is genuine by thinking about it deeply. There are always gaps in our knowledge, so as well as critical questions we need, a) an understanding of how information is created and disseminated and, b) research and checking skills.

TIP: Be aware of confirmation bias.

Myth #11
Don’t trust Wikipedia

Many of us will have heard that we should never trust Wikipedia because it can be edited by anyone and is full of unchecked and unreliable information.

Wikipedia got a bad reputation when it launched back in 2001 because it was so easy for random internet users to create and edit pages (and plenty of them did!).

Today, people can still edit (some) Wikipedia pages but there are rigorous content policies in place. Editors must be registered and logged in and content must, a) be presented from a neutral point of view, b) come from a reliable, published source and, c) be verifiable. Also, there are legions of moderators (including thousands of bots) that check pages for new content and correct bad edits.

All this makes Wikipedia a good place to get a solid overview of an unfamiliar topic – especially when it comes to the slippery concept of what is and isn’t ‘true’. It provides information on more topics than any print encyclopaedia and it is constantly being updated.

While we certainly wouldn’t recommend pupils quote from Wikipedia in an essay, the fact that it sources all of its claims (scroll to the bottom of the page for references), and provides a complete history of every single edit on the page means it’s a fantastic start-point. Plus, it can give older children a great insight into how collective knowledge forms.

TIP: Learn how to use Wikipedia well.

Myth #12
If you aren’t sure, ask a parent, friend or sibling

Since adults, siblings and friends are as vulnerable to misinformation as children, asking someone older may or may not be helpful.

We humans have been relying on each other’s co-operation and expertise ever since we formed tribes. This is why misinformation thrives in communities – we trust information more if it comes from people we know and like.

But knowing or liking someone isn’t a valid reason to believe them. So it is important to consider what makes someone a credible source of information. Are they an expert or experienced in the topic in question and do they have a history of being careful with the truth?

Too often we tell children what to believe but we don’t explain why. Why should we trust science or scientists if we don’t understand the scientific method? As children get older they may (ok, they will!) challenge their parents’ and teachers’ perspectives, so it is vital to instil in them an understanding of what makes one information source more credible than another [see 12 habits… for more on this]

TIP: Not all adults are well informed – seek out someone who really would know.

Myth #13
If lots of people are saying something it’s probably true

Another problem with the way we humans make sense of the world is that we are more likely to believe things that we see or hear repeatedly – this is called the ‘illusory truth’ effect. This is a HUGE problem online because users copy, edit and rehash digital content, which can make it feel as if something is coming from multiple sources. There are also stacks of tools – such as ‘auto likers’ and ‘click farms’ – which automatically spread and amplify content, making ideas, stories or theories seem more credible.

In fact, some of the staff employed to moderate social media posts sift through so much conspiracy material, that even they can start to believe it’s true! It’s mind-blowing…

So finding multiple apparently ‘corroborating’ sources is NOT sufficient – instead, look for credible corroborating sources [see 12 habits… to find out how to do this].

TIP: Don’t trust something just because lots of people are talking about it.

So, there are 13 myths debunked which will help every school avoid some common pitfalls.

As well as being aware of what not to do, we all need to bolster our skills when it comes to evaluating online information. Our blog 12 habits every family should adopt highlights the very best tips and techniques and the simplest and most effective skills. Many can be taught from a young age so they become second nature. It’s a must-read for teachers, parents and older children too…!

Read next…

Get media savvy – 12 habits every family should adopt

What we’ve learnt…

Watch next…

Our co-founder, Shelley Metcalfe spoke recently at TEDx Macclesfield about the cost of careless clicks, how we are all part of the problem and what we can do about it. Watch the talk here.

[Photo thanks to Adrianna Calvo via Pexels]