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Informed Citizens

are Better Citizens

by Sylvia Mendoza

Growing up in the age of technology, the convenience of googling information on any topic is probably second nature to you. The problem is the possibility that the information you’re getting could be inaccurate (misinformation) or purposely misleading (disinformation).

As an example, in 2018, actor and filmmaker Jordan Peele produced a video with Buzzfeed that revealed how easily fake news can be created. They used artificial intelligence (AI) tools and software on a video of former President Barack Obama to create a deepfake and manipulate what he said.

A deepfake is a video, image, or audio recording that has been digitally altered by sophisticated AI to replace the person in the original with someone else in a way that seems convincingly real. The news coverage of Peele’s project reinforced how people need to be more vigilant with what they trust on the internet. You can’t always trust your eyes and ears.

Many students are savvy about accessing information online. But when it comes to assessing fake news, misinformation and disinformation, they may not know what to look for. Dr. Corinne Hyde, a professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, isn’t convinced that students can discern what is true and false on social media.

With an expertise in information technology and educational psychology, Dr. Hyde teaches future teachers the intricacies of technology, information literacy, ethics, and equity. Since 2009, she has seen how the internet and online platforms have changed the world, and not always for the better.

“There are benefits and drawbacks always,” Dr. Hyde says. “Teachers have to learn and teach what is reliable and what is not, what is trustworthy and what is not in media resources and translate that to their students.”

New Jersey leads the way

To prepare students for a future as digital citizens, in January 2023, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a measure requiring information literacy curriculum standards for K–12 students. The new law requires the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to develop New Jersey Student Learning Standards in “information literacy.” As defined in the law, information literacy is “a set of skills that enables an individual to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information. Information literacy includes, but is not limited to, digital, visual, media, textual, and technological literacy.”

While Illinois has a high school requirement for information literacy education and other states, including Washington, Colorado and Texas, have policies to teach some form of media literacy in school, no state has mandated instruction for the K–12 grade band until New Jersey.

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

The terms “information literacy” and “media literacy” are often used interchangeably.  Laura Fredrick, Director of Communications at the New Jersey Department of Education, explains the difference. Information literacy, as it applies to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, centers on equipping students with skills for research methods, critical thinking, evaluation of source credibility, using research tools, and recognizing the use and ethical production of information in any medium of communication, she says. Media literacy generally focuses more on decoding media messages and assessing the influence of various media outlets and platforms.

While the NJDOE does not create curriculum, it will set overarching educational standards and provide resources so, at the local level, districts can determine the best way to implement the information literacy standards into their daily curriculum.

The seven areas of information literacy that must be added to New Jersey’s Student Learning Standards include: (1) the research process and how information is created and produced; (2) critical thinking and using information resources; (3) research methods, including the difference between primary and secondary sources; (4) the difference between facts, points of view, and opinions; (5) accessing peer-reviewed print and digital library resources; (6) the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information; and (7) the ethical production of information.

Purpose of teaching information literacy

In a 2022 Pew Research Center study, researchers found that 97% of teens surveyed said they use the internet daily and 46% admitted to being on the internet constantly, a number that increased from 26% in 2015. YouTube and TikTok are the most accessed social media apps, according to the study, and some students get their news from these sources.

According to an article on media and information literacy by the Council of Europe’s Digital Citizenship Education, school is the one place where it is absolutely crucial to train future citizens to understand, to criticize and to create information. Not only can the New Jersey information literacy standards help students become more savvy in their choices, knowledge, and wellbeing as they navigate media in school, it may guide them well into adulthood as responsible (digital) citizens in their communities.

If a person is not media literate, they may accept the first source they run across on Google as truth. They may not discern media bias, which can affect the ability to form individual opinions and views. Being educated in information literacy can be invaluable in discerning truth from fiction on the internet.

Project Look Sharp, a media literacy outreach initiative at Ithaca College, suggests asking certain questions when encountering a questionable piece of information. For example, who produced the information, who is the target audience, who paid for it and more importantly who gets paid if you click on it. Other suggestions include reading a site’s “About Us” section to find out who supports or is associated with a particular site and look for unusual URLs that might indicate that a site isn’t legitimate. In addition, be on the lookout for websites that try to look like a legitimate news outlet but aren’t.

The Stanford History Education Group, a research and development group at Stanford University that has been a major proponent of teaching media literacy, advocates teaching students lateral reading, a technique used by professional fact checkers. In lateral reading you leave the site you’re on to open a new tab where you consult other sources to determine whether the information you’re reading is credible.

Implementing information literacy

With so many resources on media literacy out there, using the same information literacy standards statewide can help streamline choices for teachers. New Jersey’s law requires school librarians to be involved in the drafting of information literacy curricula at the district level. The NJDOE will assemble a panel of certified school library media specialists as well as additional educators specializing in a variety of subjects to develop supporting documents, Fredrick explains. They will also highlight information literacy content that already exists in the disciplines of English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, comprehensive health and physical education, world languages, and visual and performing arts.

The New Jersey Association of School Librarians will also help teachers and school library media specialists to collaborate on curriculum development and instruction.

According to Dr. Hyde, information literacy taught in schools can help close the digital divide, which was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic when some students didn’t have access to the internet, laptops and other devices, causing them to fall behind.

“There was a visible disparity,” says Dr. Hyde. “The gap is still there.”

Dr. Hyde also says that with artificial intelligence being used regularly, teachers can get ahead of the curve by learning and teaching how to use it and how to verify it. The Jordan Peele video is a reality now, she says.

“AI is absolutely relevant to the conversation of information literacy. It can take workload off teachers and students, but it is flawed and biased since it builds off human input,” Dr. Hyde says but points out that the technology can be useful if “used the right way.”

Development of New Jersey’s information literacy standards began in fall 2023. Hearings for public comment on the standards must be held before they are formally adopted.

“Our State has a responsibility to equip the next generation with the tools they need to think critically in order to separate fact from fiction,” says Fredrick. “Understanding how to obtain and assess information accurately is not only critical to the academic success of New Jersey’s students, but also critical to the success of our democracy as a whole.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What long-term impact do you think incorporating information literacy into the K-12 curriculum might have when New Jersey students become adults? Explain your answer.
  2. The article mentions several strategies for confirming information sources. What strategies do you currently use to ensure that the information you come across on the Internet or through social media is accurate?
  3. Have you ever seen a deepfake on social media, like the one described in the article that was created by Jordon Peele? Did you realize it was fake? If so, how did you spot the deception?

This article originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of The Legal Eagle, Special Social Media Edition.