Four Ways Schools Can Educate Students About Misinformation

By Brian Soika

April 9, 2021

A young female student holds a tablet in class, as teachers try to reduce the spread of misinformation among students
On January 6, a deadly mob attacked the US Capitol based on unfounded claims about the presidential election. Around the world, false information has increasingly incited violence, while conspiracy theories cause anger and distrust over COVID-19 restrictions. 

Misinformation has emerged as a significant threat to people and institutions. For schools that want to prepare students to navigate the deluge of information they encounter online and elsewhere, here are four recommendations. 

1. Take a Holistic Approach 

Despite their reputation for being technologically savvy, a Stanford study found that students have trouble judging the credibility of information online. Given the potential dangers of misinformation and students’ vulnerability to it, relegating the topic to a single lesson plan may be insufficient. 

Instead, schools should consider educating students early to interrogate information, a skill that can be taught across multiple subject areas. In an article for Quartz, Anabelle Timsit writes “In a math class, this may mean teaching students how to recognize a deceptively-framed chart. In a history class, students might analyze war-time propaganda to learn how information can be weaponized.”  

2. Emphasize Misinformation in Civics Lessons

Misinformation and its more malevolent sibling, disinformation, threaten public trust in democracy. It’s arguably impossible to discuss modern democratic institutions without mentioning the impact of fake news. A discussion of the first amendment in a civics class can highlight the role of a free press in a democracy, while underscoring the power of information, and its impact on voters.

3. Promote Media Literacy

The Stanford study found that students can be fooled by sponsored content, and can’t always identify the political bias of social messages. A dedicated media literacy curriculum, tailored to different age groups, may help. Here are some common lessons recommended by media literacy organizations:

  • Distinguish between objective and partisan news, satire, and other forms of content that resemble news
  • Analyze author credibility
  • Trace the spread of fake news online, and show its real-world implications (e.g., the Capitol riot)
  • Discuss the reasons behind conspiratorial thinking
  • Distinguish between fact- and opinion-based statements

And here’s a list of organizations that offer media literacy guidance and/or downloadable lessons for students:

4. Develop Empathy Through Social-Emotional Learning

Misinformation often spreads because it reduces complex topics to simple, emotional explanations that can easily polarize users. People say hurtful things on the Internet that they would likely never utter face to face. 

Social-emotional learning can build empathy in students. By encouraging them to understand their own emotions and listen to the experiences of others, they learn to suspend judgment. Together with improved media literacy, increased empathy may diffuse heated exchanges online, and limit the reach of misinformation. 

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