Most Americans probably don’t look to Italy for solutions to our most pressing problems, but the Italians are onto a long-term fix for the dangerous ways the public digests information from the internet. With Russian meddling and all kinds of nefarious forces playing games with the truth in this country, information consumers need intellectual tools to sift fact from fancy. Italy is helping lead the way toward building a smarter public.
Italian school students on Tuesday began practicing a checklist of basic instructions on internet use to help them be more skeptical information consumers. The government is teaming up with top social media companies to help alert students to websites whose bogus information is designed to induce outrage, division and mistrust, The New York Times reports.
The fundamental idea here is that students (as well as adults) need to practice critical thinking instead of assuming that because it’s on the internet, it must be true. Does it sound too good to be true? Too outrageous to be believable? Then it probably is.
The need for critical thinking is universal, which is why students here should be exposed to the same kind of exercises that will start taking place in Italian classrooms. The exercises focus on simple procedures: Don’t recirculate or “like” a posting unless you can verify the item is true. Scrutinize the sourcing. Look for evidence to substantiate what the author is asserting.
We in the news business do this every day, because people with a political ax to grind very often twist the facts to suit their own agendas. They typically use a kernel of truth to build a deliberately slanted or deceptive narrative.
Extremists on the political left and right often perpetuate the myth that the mainstream news media deliberately stifles the truth. If reputable news organizations don’t cover a salacious accusation or assumption, it’s almost always because we cannot verify it as fact or because we have investigated it independently and know it to be false.
Teaching critical thinking in school doesn’t mean instructors should indoctrinate students or tell them what to think. Rather, teachers should prod students to think for themselves and avoid groupthink.
The dangers of not teaching such skills are growing. An internet propaganda outlet stated last year that the Democratic Party was operating a child-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant. Instead of attempting to verify this outrageous nonsense, Edgar Welch, of North Carolina, opened fire on the restaurant with an assault rifle.
America’s democracy is under attack by a Russian government that knows our public’s susceptibility to misinformation. No amount of nuclear weapons or troop buildups can stop this foe. Critical thinking skills are our nation’s first line of defense in the new misinformation age.