I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are at the heart of all of the other problems we face. After all, as any medical practitioner will tell you, prescribing a remedy requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem, and to the extent that our informational Wild West misleads us, such accuracy eludes us.
Worse, the Internet’s multitude of “facts” allows us to choose a “diagnosis” based upon our ideological preferences–we believe what we want to believe. If the problem is lazy poor folks, there’s no point raising taxes on the rich. if the problem is greedy rich folks, higher tax rates will be part of the solution.
If my own diagnosis is correct–if all of our problems are rooted in or exacerbated by our population’s growing inability to separate truth from fiction, wheat from chaff–is there a prescription for that?
Finland ranked No. 1 of 41 European countries on resilience against misinformation for the fifth time in a row in a survey published in October by the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. Officials say Finland’s success is not just the result of its strong education system, which is one of the best in the world, but also because of a concerted effort to teach students about fake news. Media literacy is part of the national core curriculum starting in preschool.
The article, from the New York Times, began with an example:
A typical lesson that Saara Martikka, a teacher in Hameenlinna, Finland, gives her students goes like this: She presents her eighth graders with news articles. Together, they discuss: What’s the purpose of the article? How and when was it written? What are the author’s central claims?
“Just because it’s a good thing or it’s a nice thing doesn’t mean it’s true or it’s valid,” she said. In a class last month, she showed students three TikTok videos, and they discussed the creators’ motivations and the effect that the videos had on them.
Her goal, like that of teachers around Finland, is to help students learn to identify false information.
The United States was not included in the survey, which was limited to European countries, but there’s plenty of evidence that misinformation and disinformation are widespread in the U.S. Polls show that Americans’ trust in the news media is at record lows.
A survey by Gallup, published in October, found that just 34 percent of Americans trusted the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, slightly higher than the lowest number that the organization recorded, in 2016. In Finland, 76 percent of Finns consider print and digital newspapers to be reliable, according to an August survey commissioned by a trade group representing Finnish newspapers that was conducted by IRO Research, a market research company.
If we Americans were inclined to learn from others–not a noticeable national trait, unfortunately–we might take a lesson from the article’s description of what Finland has going for it, including a public school system that ranks among the best in the world, free college, high trust in government, and even higher respect for teachers.
In all fairness, there are some Finnish advantages we don’t share: Finnish is spoken only by about 5.4 million people, so disinformation produced by foreign speakers or bots is more easily identified because of grammatical or syntax errors. In the U.S., not only do we have millions of people for whom English is a second language, we also have tens of millions of native English speakers whose command of grammar, spelling and syntax makes this former English teacher weep. So some clues that are available to Finns aren’t available to us.
And unlike far too many Americans, Finns evidently believe it is the proper goal of the schools to equip students with intellectual tools–not to indoctrinate them with a particular view of their country or the other people who inhabit it. The article quoted one Finnish teacher who explained that she believed her job was to teach students “methods they can use to distinguish between truth and fiction. I can’t make them think just like me,” she said. “I just have to give them the tools to make up their own opinions.”
I’m sure those misnamed “Moms for Liberty” would disagree. Strenuously.
In the U.S., the goal of too many self-identified “patriotic Americans” isn’t to equip students to think, or to spot disinformation–it’s to ensure that they accept the correct disinformation.
No wonder so many Americans believe “facts” that just aren’t so.