Critical thinking must be taught, improved and tested
- João Pedro Martins, Youth Ambassador
The topical issue of fake news is the focus for the June 2017 edition of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) bulletin. As always in the work we do in creating a safer and better internet, gaining the perspectives of young people is essential, especially on new and emerging issues. Here, João from Portugal shares his thoughts.
"We're living in a time when we have access to so much information, so quickly, coming from everywhere and anywhere. That often creates a "fuzziness"; a poor ability to be able to distinguish what news to embrace and follow. When volumes of news are high the quality might not always be good or trustworthy and, sometimes, it's even fabricated. We often don't have enough time to think and now, more than ever, we even seem to be discouraged from doing so. If we don't make efforts to reduce the constant flow of data and come up with efficient ways to validate it, people will soon be guided by lies instead of their own beliefs.
"It sounds scary, I know, but if not put in this way, "fake news" might be seen as something rather innocuous or amusing. It's easy to be fooled by the simplicity and apparent relevance of so many articles and rumours. Perhaps someone who is particularly sensitised to the issue, who constantly tries to vet facts and spot fables, can avoid the manipulative intent which underlies such news but, equally, there are many who cannot. Younger and older people are perhaps especially susceptible to fake news, and so these are the groups who should get more support.
"As far as older people are concerned, they weren't born in the so called "digital age" so the task of adapting to it is a never-ending challenge. They might grasp some of what it takes to be online, but new situations aren't perhaps treated with the suspicion they require. As an example, in small, aged communities, a member might come across a fake news site and consider its content to be real. With the lack of other means to instantly determine if such news is true, wrong information is then shared within the group which can lead to unnecessary concern and panic.
"On the other hand, younger people face similar issues. Viral content, which fills up social networking feeds, often doesn't translate to real-life models or scenarios. Such stories are designed to be eye-catching though, specifically targeting users who will subsequently spend more time clicking here and there just to get to the bottom of the article with silly or provocative headlines. Time "wasted" in this way will probably be mirrored in other areas of those young people's lives.
"Resolving the fake news epidemic must be done from two opposing fronts: firstly, educating people and explaining how potentially dangerous this reality is and, secondly, restricting the amount of bad information which is circulating online. Of course, it's easier said than done: restrictions and control of media are very sensitive topics, and reaching out to people using the same means by which they are being misled might sound contradictory.
"Also, we mustn't forget that big advertising revenue is implicitly involved so, most of the time, there is no interest in spotting or closing fake news websites. Whether directly or indirectly, viewers are exposed to products and websites collect their profit. With these economic interests in place, only truly independent entities can be held responsible for vetting the veracity and credibility of online content.
"Nevertheless, there are some key values and skills that must arise within society, and these should be given priority in the early development of young people. Critical thinking is, and always will be, something that must be taught, improved and tested. As we know, being online brings us more choices and more access to content, but only the fittest will thrive in the current social media environment."
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, European Schoolnet, the European Commission or any related organisations or parties.
About the author:
João Pedro is a 19-year-old computer engineering student at Coimbra's University. He has been a youth ambassador for about five years. Born in Portugal, he was one of the first members from outside Lisbon to join the youth panel of his national Safer Internet Centre (SIC). After attending a Safer Internet Forum (SIF) in Luxembourg in 2011 representing his country, he was invited to be a youth ambassador. Since then he has attended a number of seminars and, over the years, has had the opportunity both to share and learn about online safety issues, as well as to get to know a lot of interesting people from all around the world.
Young people's opinions are very important to him and he believes they should be taken into account by politicians and companies. That is why he is involved in several projects, most of them connected to youth participation in debates and decisions. In recent months, he has worked alongside his national Safer Internet Centre (SIC) organising lectures in local schools.
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