Combating fake news in the education system

2019-11-29

A summary of research conducted by the Social Development Institute and Political Capital – in collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation – on the occurrence and dangers of fake news in the education system, and possible ways of combating the phenomenon.

You can reach the full study in Hungarian here (pdf, 2 721 KB).

Key findings

 

  • The study clearly shows that students and teachers alike consider the problem of fake news to be significant, and both groups are keenly interested in the topic. At the same time, the education system is not particularly capable of managing the phenomenon, due largely to the burdens placed on teachers and a lack of professional support.
  • Students state, confidently, that they are able to identify fake news; during focus group sessions, however, their confidence proves to be unjustified, and is not necessarily matched by an appropriate level of knowledge. Two-thirds of teachers responding to the questionnaire believe that secondary school children are exposed to fake news to a greater extent than adults.
  • Teachers and students participating in the study – independently of one another – pinpointed, in part, similar areas and skills which should be strengthened and developed to increase their immunity to fake news. These include an interest in current events, critical thinking, media literacy, an ability to analyze sources, collaboration and debate culture.

The problem: exposure to fake news

Perhaps one of the most-discussed topics today is the phenomenon of fake news, which also presents new challenges for the education system. The few research studies conducted to date dealing with this field suggest that the problem is deeper and more serious than many might think. A survey of U.S. secondary school students conducted by Stanford University has shown, for instance, that school-age children's confident and competent use of smart phones does not necessarily go hand in hand with a more critical approach to the processing of information, and that young people are easily manipulated by fake news, paid content, biased "expert opinions" – without them even realizing it.

While there is plenty of discussion of how to combat fake news, and many agree that schools must play a central role in this, no comprehensive study has been conducted thus far in Hungary, and we know little about how the people affected – i.e. teachers and young people – see this problem themselves.

The Social Development Institute and Political Capital – in collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation – conducted a study in 2019 to learn about the opinions and experiences of teachers and young people between the ages of 16 and 24 regarding fake news pertaining to scientific knowledge and current event topics; we also sought to determine the extent of the phenomenon and possible ways of combating it, as well as teachers' relevant needs.

The study was composed of three parts: (1) an online questionnaire and (2) in-depth interviews, building on the questionnaire, to collect data among secondary school teachers; and (3) focus group discussions with young people between the ages of 16 and 24 to assess their level of knowledge and cognizance regarding fake news. The results of the non-representative survey only lend themselves, of course, to drawing limited conclusions; further studies would be required in the field.

We are nonetheless hopeful that the findings of our present study will serve as a useful aid to politicians dealing with education, as well as to researchers of education, school leaders, teachers and even parents.

How teachers see the situation (based on the online survey and in-depth interviews conducted with teachers)

Through the questionnaire prepared for secondary school teachers, we sought answers to the question of what educators think of fake news, and we sought to determine how the phenomenon affects the education system. We wanted to hear their personal opinions in the following areas:

  • How significant of a problem are fake news for students and for teachers?
  • To what extent do they encounter fake news in the school and beyond?
  • What are their experiences with how educational institutions manage (or do not manage) the question?
  • What assistance and support do teachers require?

Methodology

The online questionnaire was sent to the leaders of 860 institutions whose purviews included some aspect of secondary school, specialized secondary school, vocational school or professional school education or training. We ultimately received responses from a total of 210 educators in September 2019.

Respondents represented a rather diverse group in terms of gender, age and the subject matter they teach. Similarly, the distribution according to region and type of settlement was also diverse, as well as according to the types of schools represented and what authority the schools are maintained by. Thus, the results obtained reflect not the opinions of a narrow set of educators, but are indicative of the perceptions and experiences of a far broader segment. For this reason, our findings are suitable for aiding professional and policy decision-making. At the same time, no generalizations may be made for the entire sector of Hungarian educators; this was also never the goal of our study. The compilation of a representative sample and survey would have far exceeded the framework and possibilities of the present project.

In order to obtain as complete and complex a picture as possible of the experiences and opinions of teachers, the questionnaire was augmented by in-depth interviews with teachers. We selected interview subjects from among those who indicated, when filling out the online questionnaire, that they would be willing to participate in such a conversation. We conducted a total of 15 such interviews in September and October 2019, including an equal proportion of educators from the capital and the countryside. The anonymous in-depth interviews are not presented in a separate section; the results of the questionnaire survey include the relevant conclusions of the interviews.

Conclusions of the questionnaire survey and in-depth interviews

  • The majority of the 210 educators completing the questionnaire described encountering on a weekly basis, or more frequently, news and information which they believe present a misleading perception of reality, or are entirely untrue. The majority of teachers encounter fake news in their online social media networks (primarily on Facebook).
  • Respondents are reasonably confident that they can identify fake news. The in-depth interviews showed that subjects had separated for themselves the sources which they trust from ones that they do not trust or trust less. The critical nature of their approach to news perceived to be fake depends, primarily, on how important and interesting a piece of news is for them. They only deal with a news item that they cannot immediately identify as being true if its topic is particularly interesting and relevant for them. In other cases, they do not devote energy to verifying the news item.

How certain or uncertain are you that you are able to identify fake news? 

 

N

%

Highly certain

39

19%

Rather certain

143

68%

Rather uncertain

23

11%

Highly uncertain

5

2%

Total

210

100%

 

  • Educators responding to the questionnaire believe fake news to be highly dangerous both for all of society as well as for students of their school. During the in-depth interviews, opinions differed over whether it is fake news related to current events topics or scientific knowledge that are more dangerous. While the majority of respondents believe fake news related to current events have a rapid, short-term impact, fake news related to scientific knowledge play out in the longer term and have more lasting impacts. The majority of interview subjects, at the same time, highlighted that it is not these types of fake news that the majority of students encounter the most, but more tabloid-type items having to do with celebrities and lifestyle (e.g. dietary supplements) or gossip about the private lives of members of their own social circle.
  • According to two-thirds of questionnaire respondents, the secondary school generation is more exposed to fake news than adults. The overwhelming majority of teachers do not believe students are capable of precisely identifying fake news. At the same time, during the in-depth interviews, several respondents noted that students have a better "radar" for recognizing fake news than the older generations. Young people's better ability to correct fake news is supported by a number of studies in cognitive psychology, with many noting, however, the vulnerability and greater degree of exposure of young people.

Do you believe secondary school students are less exposed or more exposed to fake news than adults?

 

N

%

Far less exposed

0

0%

Less exposed

13

6%

Their level of exposure is the same

58

28%

More exposed

91

43%

Far more exposed

48

23%

Total

210

100%

In your opinion, how well are secondary school students able to identify fake news?

 

N

%

Very able

1

0%

Rather able

40

19%

Not particularly able

141

67%

Not at all able

28

13%

Total

210

100%

  • Teachers participating in the study were in complete agreement that there is a need for developing skills which help recognize fake news, and for reinforcing young people's cognizance. The overwhelming majority believe parents, teachers and schools must all play a key role in taking action against fake news and developing the appropriate skills. 
  • The majority of teachers responding to the questionnaire related that there was no organized discussion or skills development activity in their school related to fake news. It does, however, frequently happen that teachers – either in a classroom setting or outside it – discuss fake news with their students, often at the initiative of the latter. Thus, there is a clear interest and need in the secondary school generation to discuss fake news.
  • The greatest obstacle to organized school programs is that school leaders, teachers and education professionals are not appropriately prepared for how to deal with fake news in the school. Additionally, a lack of time and the burdens placed on teachers are also important hindrances. According to a significant number of teachers, the politically sensitive nature of the issue also leads to a lack of skills development; and one-half of respondents are uncertain as to whether or not it is even permissible to discuss fake news related to current events in the school.
  • More than one-half of those responding to the questionnaire receive no help whatsoever in their school for improving their students' immunity to fake news – even though the demand is there. There is a clear need for detailed guidelines and materials; there is also a relatively great need for exchanging experiences and coordinating with fellow teachers and professionals.

Of the items below, which would help you in your work the most: which would be most useful in improving the defense capability of secondary school students against fake news?

 

N

%

Making educational materials about fake news available

122

58%

Making information about fake news available

107

51%

Making best practices available

106

50%

Exchanging experiences with fellow teachers and professionals

87

41%

Discussing specific cases with fellow teachers and professionals

72

34%

Making tools available which I can utilize directly in my work

66

31%

Organizing joint activities targeted against fake news, and launching such initiatives

61

29%

Communicating with fellow teachers and professionals who are affected by the issue and who are engaged with it

58

28%

Soliciting opinions and advice from fellow teachers and professionals

27

13%

Calling the attention of fellow teachers and professionals to cases relating to fake news

23

11%

I require none of these

8

4%

 

  • In connection with the types of skills which should be developed among the students, our interview subjects put forward proposals similar to ones formulated by the students themselves in the focus groups. Among other things, they recommended:
    • raising students’ interest in current events and a desire to be generally informed,
    • improving critical thinking, media literacy and the ability to analyze sources,
    • recognizing the dangers of fake news and the importance of playing an active role in one’s community,
    • improving students’ empathy, cooperation, communication and debate culture.

How students see the situation (based on focus group research)

The objective of the focus group research was to determine the level of knowledge and personal experiences of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 regarding fake news, and to discover some of their individual strategies for recognizing fake news. We also hoped to gather input for the training material being prepared for teachers. Five conversations were held in four cities (Budapest, Debrecen, Pécs and Szombathely), with a total of 40 young people between 16 and 24 participating, representing a diverse group in terms of gender, school type and interests.

At the beginning of each discussion, we explored how much time participants spend on their digital tools, and in what ways; we also asked about their news consumption habits (online or traditional channels). We then asked participants for their first, spontaneous opinion about fake news and the motives underlying this phenomenon.

For participants, perhaps the most interesting part of the conversations was when we distributed five short news items to each of them: after a chance to carefully read the items, we asked each participant to decide themselves, independently and without any outside assistance, whether that particular item was a genuine news story or a piece of fake news. We distributed the paper slips randomly, so each participant was given a different combination of news stories. No one was told ahead of time how many genuine news stories and how many fake news items were given to a particular participant. After the participants each read the news stories distributed to them, and decided if they were genuine or fake, they had to select the story that they found most exciting and that caused the greatest level of uncertainty for them; with the help of their smart phones, they were then asked to check if they were right to think that that particular story was genuine or fake.

Conclusions of the focus group discussions

  • Young people tend to associate fake news primarily with fraud, deception, “like-hunting,” money-making and, to a lesser extent, political manipulation. They have limited personal experience with fake news, and therefore mostly mentioned some of the simplest frauds when asked for examples of fake news. They are not particularly familiar with fake news which operate with partial truths but reach entirely false conclusions – or at least they were essentially unable to name any examples themselves. At the same time, they believe the spread of fake news to be a disturbing, negative and dangerous process.
  • Students do not tend to discuss and debate current events or politics – essentially, the events going on in the world – with their peers. This takes place to some extent in the family, but for many young people, this aspect is missing from their lives almost altogether.
  • An exercise conducted in the focus group – aimed at identifying and verifying fake news – showed that young people’s primary “radar” works relatively well: they were able to identify as suspicious a good proportion of fake news items mixed in with real news stories. There were many, however, who actually thought these fake stories to be true. They used simple, keyword Google-searches to check fake news items; they did not use fake news verification or fact-check sites at all, or did so very seldom. It is also very telling that for participants, this was the first time they dealt in a focused way with verifying the credibility of a news item.
  • In general, students described themselves as being digitally very aware, and therefore believed that they are less susceptible to being misled by fake news. They believe that they possess sound technological and practical knowledge, and the majority of them speak foreign languages. Many are also convinced that they are able to decide the reliability of a particular news item and/or news sources based on a few “external characteristics,” and they believe they are able to filter out deceptive websites. Their self-confidence, however, is often unjustified, and is not necessarily accompanied by appropriate knowledge and experience.
  • While several of the students had participated in media literacy classes earlier, the overwhelming majority had never received any kind of training or systemic education about fake news (and media comprehension in general). This topic had never come up in conversations with their teachers or amongst themselves, they noted.
  • The students interviewed believed that special education or training focused on fake news would be a good idea. They added, however, that any such training should be conducted in a way that is very different – in terms of format and methodology – from the current mainstream education system. Instead of imparting lexical knowledge, the goal must be to teach thought processes. They also mentioned the importance of developing their debate culture, to learn to use reasoning for and against an issue and to accept others’ opinions. They believe practical and interactive methods would prove interesting and effective, enabling young people to experience for themselves the kinds of skills they need to filter out fake news, and to see the kinds of tools that are at their disposal to that end. 

The solution: Policy recommendations

  • Incorporating education about fake news into the education system. Effective development of skills related to fake news and the broad-range strengthening of young people’s immunity requires systemic political will and system-wide intervention. Education about media literacy and education about fake news must be made an organic and compulsory part of the curriculum, and such programs must begin at the earliest age possible. However exemplary and successful grass-roots type individual initiatives in a particular school, by teachers or by NGOs, may be, these remain isolated examples and reach only few students.
  • Education about fake news must become a part of teacher training. A precondition to system-wide intervention is to ensure that teachers dealing with the issue are appropriately prepared. This requires, as a priority, integrating the skills, abilities and methods required for teaching about fake news into teacher training programs, with the involvement of relevant NGOs and professionals.
  • Regular further training for teachers. Experiences to date regarding training and further training for teachers show that techniques taught in one-time sessions rarely become a part of everyday practice. The key factor, therefore, is regularity and follow-through.
  • A need for the collaboration of schools and external actors. External actors (e.g. NGOs and experts) are able to take on a great share of teachers’ work, and can bring new methods and skills to the education system in the development of knowledge and skills relevant to countering fake news. The educational system must open up to competent external actors, and education leaders and institutional leaders must encourage collaboration with such actors.
  • Expanding teachers’ capacity and reducing the burdens placed upon them. There is a need to reform the curriculum and to reduce the burdens placed on teachers, so that in addition to teaching the core material, a greater emphasis may be placed on, and more time and creative energy may be devoted to, practical, everyday life and to the development of social competences necessary for participation in social and public life (e.g. debate culture, empathy and collaboration), media literacy, immunity to fake news and critical thinking.
  • Instead of frontal education, use interactive methods. Media education has been using the most modern educational tools since the 1990s, incorporating activity-based, collaborative, practical activities which are close to students’ sets of experiences. Programs related to fake news are all similar in terms of approach. This must be utilized in other subjects in order to develop competences related to fake news.
  • Creating synergies and the establishment of a platform for exchanging experiences and sharing teaching aids. Although several NGOs and public organizations are involved in developing educational materials related to fake news, they are either not connected to one another at all, or the links are very weak. Teachers are left to themselves: they must develop their own teaching aids about fake news, and they have very little – or no – knowledge of educational experts or organizations dealing with the topic; they also do not know fellow teachers who may be similarly active. A network of actors interested in and dealing with the topic would be one way of exchanging experiences and making better use of synergies, as would the creation of a platform facilitating information sharing, exchange of experiences and access to already compiled teaching materials and best practices.
  • Making teaching materials related to specific subject frameworks accessible. Dealing with the topic of fake news is possible and worthwhile in each subject taught in school; the following subjects, however, are most appropriate for in-depth discussions of the topic: media studies, shop, lifestyle, history and citizenship knowledge, Hungarian language and literature, and foreign language classes. The topic may be incorporated into the curriculum – perhaps even by focusing on fake news and misinformation relevant to the specific subjects. There is a need for teaching materials, guidelines and class outlines containing specific recommendations, ideas and examples for the various subjects – perhaps even for each subject and in line with the different demands of the various class years. It would help process the topic if teachers had access to ready-made teachers’ materials, worksheets, tools, toolsets and class outlines, containing specific examples and tasks.
  • Topics of interest to students. Classroom sessions should cover topics which affect and are of interest to students (e.g. fake news about people, behaviors, abilities, or related to influencers and celebrities). Thus, even while avoiding the topic of current event fake news, it becomes possible to develop the skills necessary for identifying and verifying fake news.
  • Training for parents. It is especially true of media instruction that it may be implemented effectively only when the family and the school collaborate closely. Developing the cognizance and skills of parents is imperative: they must be involved in the training programs organized. The programs must also involve components where parents, teachers and students collaborate. In terms of communication with parents, assistance must be provided to homeroom teachers and subject-matter teachers.
  • Legal cognizance. A significant number of teachers are uncertain about the extent to which topics related to current events may be discussed in schools, which in many cases ends up turning such issues into taboos. The relevant clause[1] of the Act on Public Education forbids political parties from conducting activities in schools. The law does not, however, prohibit the party-neutral discussion of current events, in a way that is free from political partisanship; nor does it prohibit preparing students for participation in public life – and, in fact, there is a need for this. Teachers’ cognizance and self-confidence vis-à-vis their own rights and the frameworks of their duties must be bolstered.
  • Sensitizing teachers. The sensitization of teachers about the topic must be supported, and their defense mechanisms regarding fake news must be improved. Each school should select teachers capable of conducting sessions dealing with fake news and of processing the topic in a knowledgeable and credible way.
  • Skills development. Teachers and students participating in the study – independently of one another – pinpointed, in part, similar areas and skills which should be strengthened and developed to increase their immunity to fake news:
    • an interest in current events and a desire to be generally informed;
    • critical thinking, media literacy and an ability to analyze sources;
    • empathy, collaboration, communication and debate culture;
    • raising awareness of the threats posed by fake news, and increasing cognizance about the importance of playing an active role in the community.
  • Further research and follow-through. The present study could not provide answers to every question; it would therefore be necessary to conduct further regular, large-sample quantitative studies focused on students, exploring fake news, misbeliefs and conspiracy theories. Online research experiments would make it possible to verify what kinds of fake news young people are most receptive to, and what methods are most effective for combating fake news. Future research and impact studies could greatly improve the effectiveness of action against fake news.

You can reach the full study in Hungarian here (pdf, 2 721 KB).

[1] Act CXC of 2011 on National Public Education, Section 24, Paragraph 3 “In the premises or on the site of public education institutions political parties, political movements or organizations related to political parties may not operate, furthermore, during such times while children or students are under the supervision of the pre-school, school or hall of residence, no political activities related to a political party or an organization affiliated with a political party may be pursued.”,

 

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