New Jersey schools to fight misinformation with information literacy

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The solution to fighting misinformation might start in schools. This state wants to find out.

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, videos about how to perform at-home abortions using herbs like pennyroyal and mugwort went viral on TikTok. Doctors grew concerned, warning that herbal abortions are actually quite dangerous, despite what TikTok videos claimed. But the videos continued to spread — so much so, they were viewed over 18 million times, per a report from NewsGuard.

What’s even more alarming: TikTok is where about 40 percent of young people get their information, including news. And according to NewsGuard, around 20 percent of TikTok videos on popular news searches contained misinformation.

“We’ve confused young people’s ability to operate digital devices with the sophistication they need to discern whether the information those devices yield is something that can be relied upon,” said Sam Wineburg, research psychologist at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and author of a 2021 study on students’ fact-checking abilities.

What’s the solution? New Jersey is taking a stab at it.

While experts and parents agree that Gen Z (roughly ages 12-26) and Gen Alpha (under 12) are at the highest risk of being influenced by misinformation (Gen Z is the platform’s biggest group of consumers), how to go about tackling the issue has people divided.

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New Jersey decided to go the education route, making news recently as the first state to mandate information literacy as a part of the K-12 curriculum — signed into law by Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Jan. 4 of this year.

“Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse,” Murphy said in a statement on the legislation. “It is our responsibility to ensure our nation’s future leaders are equipped with the tools necessary to identify fact from fiction.”

Passed with bipartisan support, the bill will task certified school media library specialists and teaching staff with developing information literacy standards, focusing on things like how information is created and produced, research methods, the ethical use of information, and the difference between fact and opinion, among others.

Olga Polites, leader of the New Jersey chapter of Media Literacy Now and a teacher for 40 years, said misinformation is nothing new, but when the internet, and later social media, was introduced, the issue of information literacy became more pressing for her. It was a concern based on her own classroom experiences that motivated Polites to get involved in getting this legislation passed.

Polites partnered with the New Jersey Association of School Librarians to advocate for the bill, including testifying in front of the Senate and Assembly Education Committees to advocate for the bill.

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“Given the ubiquity of social media in the lives of our students, it’s vital they learn how news content and social media platforms intersect,” she said in her testimony. “Developing students’ critical thinking skills and providing the tools necessary to assess credible information will enable them to participate in our democracy without being derailed by mis- and disinformation.”

Critics say much of the legislation states are considering lacks needed nuance in an already bloated curriculum

Media literacy, Wineburg said, is more than critical thinking skills. Critical thinking often doesn’t take into account keywords, top-level domains or a medium where all information is electronically linked.

Wineburg also argues that school curricula are already bloated and the impact will be negligible. “When legislation is passed without a fundamental rethinking of how we are going to retool the teaching force,” he said, it just turns into “legislative handwaving.”

Ashley Jacobs, executive director of Parents Unite, agrees that social media is something we must be wary of but thinks that if a teacher is teaching properly, this is something students should already be learning. “It shouldn’t need a bill that says, ‘OK, we’re going to add this to an already overflowing curriculum,’” she said.

This latest initiative, she said, is a trend and other states may follow suit, but she described it as a “distraction.” She added that it’ll just be one more thing to burden already-burdened teachers with.

And who gets to define what’s good and bad information?

Another problem with this method, Jacobs said, is the potential for bias because there is bias already baked into the program by who will be designing the program and instructing students.

“The school library media specialists — we all know that the librarians have become some of the most divisive and ideologically driven people in the schools these days,” she said. “You talk about teaching kids to sort of spot the truth. Well, whose truth?”

Polities said that critics have it wrong. Teachers will not be selecting the sources of information for students to learn. Instead, Polites said, teachers will be helping students think critically through all sources.

She gave an example of a theoretical electronic source that students might be presented with. The questions students will ask might include: Is this a popular source or a scholarly source? Who owns it? Who are the people that contributed to it? Are there editors?

Some of the work, she added, will be explaining to critics that there is an academic structure around information literacy. The nature of an academic structure, she said, protects against the claims that teachers will go off script and simply talk about sources that they deem appropriate.


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And it’s not actually about the sources, but the critical thinking skills that will be taught, she added. What matters, Polites said, is asking if the source is a factual piece of reporting or if it is an opinion piece, and why. In other words, there will be a focus on the skills over the source.

Still, asked Jacob, what is the end goal?

“OK, so you have a population of kids in New Jersey that now know that the media is biased,” she said. “They now know that there’s a lot of fragmentation online. So, then what? Does this help them engage constructively in civil discourse and ask really good questions?”

Kids undoubtedly need to learn how to think through things using facts, but, Jacobs asked, is this something a bill can do?

“There’s no shortage of things that kids need to be able to think through intelligently using facts and logic,” she said. “But that’s the point of school. No bill is going to be able to do it independently of school.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Khaya Himmelman
    Khaya Himmelman

    Reporter

    Khaya Himmelman is a reporter at Grid. A former misinformation reporter for the Dispatch, she is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College. Khaya has appeared on CNN to discuss misinformation in the media.