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Taking on “fake news” in our classrooms

19 Jun 2019 | Lisa Emerson Professor Lisa Emerson, Director, Teaching and Learning, Massey University and Advance HE's 10th Principal Fellow in New Zealand, explores the responsibility of schools and tertiary institutions to develop information-literate citizens in the wake of the Christchurch attacks.

On 15 March 2019, my country changed forever when a gunman opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch. 51 people died in New Zealand’s worst ever mass shooting. The gunman live streamed the massacre on Facebook, and posted an online “manifesto”, with the stated intention of inspiring similar acts of terror around the world.  

Within days, the New Zealand government passed a series of measures imposing tighter restrictions on gun ownership and making it a criminal offence in New Zealand to engage with either the terrorist’s video or the manifesto. The government then lobbied social media outlets to delete all copies of this material and spearheaded an international initiative to prevent the spread of hate speech through social media.  Naturally, these efforts to protect our country’s values have been met with important counter-arguments about freedom of speech. 

But as an educator, I felt that an element of the debate was missing. In all this discussion about regulating social media in response to the Christchurch massacre, I have heard little in New Zealand about the responsibilities of schools and tertiary institutions to develop information-literate citizens who are able to engage critically with the information they receive, through conventional or social media.  Which is concerning, since we know that confirmation bias, the backfire effect (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010), filter bubbles and echo chambers (Flaxman et al., 2016; Pariser, 2011) all work to reinforce established bias, making students vulnerable to interest groups and shielding them from balanced information.  

As a researcher on information literacy in New Zealand secondary schools and tertiary institutions, I know we can do better in developing students’ capacity to engage critically and ethically with information. A recent survey of senior secondary teachers, conducted by my research team, showed that only 50% of teachers rated ethical use of information as very important for their students’ lives, and only 11% saw the senior high school curriculum as promoting ethical use of information to a great extent. On the other side of the ledger, in a study of students in a first year university business course, 42% of students reported that they never or rarely question who wrote a piece of information; 33% of students rarely question whether something they read is true and accurate; and almost 40% describe themselves as having limited capacity to judge whether information is good quality or not. 

These findings are not restricted to New Zealand. Multiple international studies  have established that secondary and tertiary students do not have the skills to critique sources, to search for information outside of filter bubbles, or to make informed decisions about the ethical use of information. The Stanford History Education group (2016), after investigating secondary and college students’ capacity to engage critically with digital sources, commented: “overall, young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak” (p. 4).  

We should not be surprised by these findings, however dispiriting they may seem. As Sally Dring, literacy and numeracy co-ordinator at Ripon Grammar School, says, “A pupil would not be deposited in the vast chambers of the British Library and expected to find the right book – why then do we expect them to be able to navigate their way through the vast reams of information that they will find online?”

So now that we have a clearly established problem, we have an opportunity to address our students’ needs. We need to take action if we are to enable them to successfully navigate the information quagmire they live in. Whether we consider the next generation to be digital natives or not,  international research such as the Stanford Study clearly establish that these skills are not intuitively discerned but must be taught. In schools and within universities we need to examine our curricula and actively engage our students with the language of misinformation (confirmation bias, the back fire effect, filter bubbles and echo chambers) and critical digital literacy skills – in all disciplines, not just media studies (see  for a discussion of bias in science). We need to teach students how knowledge is made, reported, and used. And we need to encourage them to think about the ethical choices they make in engaging with or promoting information in social or media contexts. As Alan Miller says, we want to show students that they can be “part of the information solution, rather than part of the misinformation problem”. 

Fortunately, we have great resources available to us. Most schools and all universities have trained librarians who are woefully underutilised and who really understand how information works – we need to get them into our classrooms, collaborating with us in developing and delivering our curricula. Around the world, there are pockets of inspiration – teachers doing great things (see, for example, or ) or librarians working with academic staff (see, for example, I think this little gem should be compulsory viewing for all students. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand we have had a vivid, tragic reminder of how information that promotes hatred, prejudice, racial intolerance, and violence can be spread around the world. As teachers, we have a moral imperative to start, in our classrooms, to be part of a countering message.  It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that the future of our students and our world depends on it. 


(NZ Herald: Chris Loufte): A vigil on Takapuna Beach in memory of the victims of the Christchurch Mosque shootings

Emery, J. L., & Fancher, S. E. (2017). What Do We Need? Information Criticality! When Do We Need It? Now!. Friday, November 3, 2017, 129.

Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2016). Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public opinion quarterly, 80(S1), 298-320.

Kitchen, R. (May, 2019). School librarians 'key' in age of misinformation, warns Ripon Grammar literacy lead. The Yorkshire Post.

Leetaru, K. 2016. How data and information literacy could end fake news. Forbes, December 11.

 Stanford History Education Group. 2016. Evaluation information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning.

Miller, A.C. (May, 2019). Educating young people can solve the ‘dueling facts’ phenomenon. Medium.

Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330.

Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you. Penguin UK.
Stanford History Education Group. 2016. Evaluation information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning.

Tiffany, K. 2016. In the war on fake news, school librarians have a huge role to play. The Verge, November 16.

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