How Schools Can Save the World from Fake News

I was at a world education conference earlier this month in the tiny Middle Eastern country of Qatar when the queen of that oil-rich state blasted “fake news.” But she didn’t do it in the way you’d think. “Instead of finding weapons of mass destruction, Iraq saw massive destruction,” Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned told the audience. “Iraq’s education system, one of the best in the region in 1990, was in complete ruins,” she said. “A country that was on the verge of eradicating illiteracy was caught in the midst of wars and conflicts that dragged progress back to the unfortunate conditions of the past.” The queen also took a jab some of her Middle Eastern neighbors who have recently accused the country of supporting terrorism. While nobody’s produced concrete evidence, the suspicion and allegations have been enough for those countries to cut off trade to Qatar, as well as diplomatic ties, allegedly part of a larger plot to financially ruin the country. “A world that is congested with fake news should not stop us, as advocates of education, from standing on the side of truth,” she said.

So What Counts as ‘Fake News’?

As I see it, there are three types of so-called fake news.
  • President Trump style Basically, just the term you use whenever you think a news story is unflattering.
  • Deliberate misinformation (i.e., making stuff up) Like when someone reported that the pope was endorsing Donald Trump, or that Hillary Clinton was operating a child sex ring from a pizzeria.
  • Incomplete or incorrect information It’s not necessarily intended to mislead, but it still has significant consequences. The Iraq War claim fits here. I believe President George W. Bush believed there were weapons, but it turned out to be wrong.
  Even though the definitions are all very different (and frankly I’m tired of the overused term and think it needs to go away), the queen’s ultimate point about standing on the side of truth is a salient one. Another speaker, CNN host Fareed Zakaria, expounded on the queen’s theme by pointing to more current examples of people disregarding facts and evidence, and not being honest about what is unknown. He said lies, almost by definition, are more compelling and easier to spread than the “boring truth.” I thought of that quote famously (and incorrectly) attributed to Mark Twain: "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." It’s ironic that a quote about spreading false information was falsely attributed, but I digress.

That’s Where Schools Come In

Zakaria continued, "In this new world, technology is playing a pernicious role…The only thing that can stop the decline of civilization is facts and education.” Zakaria’s assertion may be a little sweeping (I think strong families, an industrious culture and high moral standards can also help stop the decline of civilization), but he’s basically right. Helping people learn to think critically, seek out evidence and original sources, verifying claims, etc., will have a major impact on the success or failure of our societies. Education is a strategy for getting nations, families and individuals on prosperity’s track. That’s why making sure our kids are getting a good education is so important. My trip to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar taught me that many of the challenges our schools face in America are similar to the challenges faced in the rest of the world. We’re all in a struggle to identify truth. We need to teach our children (and ourselves) how to be rational thinkers and objective problem solvers, and how to identify and take advantage of credible sources of information. This isn’t breaking news. We’ve known the importance of doing these things for a while. These skills are even found among the expectations in the Common Core standards and other high standards that states have set over the last few years. But we still haven’t cracked this nut, and I suspect adjusting to teaching higher standards will continue to take some time. As information—true, false and otherwise—becomes increasingly more accessible to everyone, it becomes increasingly critical to equip our children (and the rest of us) with the skills to discern it.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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