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In the face of online misinformation, these teens are learning how to sort fact from fiction | CBC News

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Sameer Ferdousi, 16, is enthralled by journalism.

A former middle school “news anchor” who reported on events at daily assemblies, Ferdousi is currently on staff at his high school newspaper.

He’s also active on social media, like the vast majority of teens, but he’s worried about the misinformation he sees on his feed. 

“Anyone can make a post and spread it to millions of people,” said the Mississauga, Ont., student. “I’ve seen a lot more fake news. That kind of sparked my interest for chasing the truth.”

WATCH | Teaching teens to navigate misinformation online:

Teen fact checkers take on fake TikTok posts

An elite teen squad of fact checkers with the help of media literacy organizations are learning to suss out scams and fake information on TikTok, making videos to teach other teens about misinformation online.

Ferdousi’s passion for news has led him to his latest gig: joining the Canadian squad of the international Teen Fact-Checking Network.

More than 91 per cent of young Canadians aged 15-24 are on social media today, according to Statistics Canada, with 62 per cent of this cohort turning to social media first for their news and information

Yet teens are also the least worried about encountering false information online — a concern given that young Canadians are exposed to online harms more than any other population, StatsCan says.

How teens learn about navigating the online world varies from class to class, but two digital media literacy programs aim to get more Canadian students scrutinizing their socials.

A close-up image of a teen boy holding a smartphone, his thumbs hovering over the apps -- including TikTok and Instagram -- on his home screen.
More than 91 per cent of young Canadians aged 15-24 are on social media today and 62 per cent of this age cohort turns to social media first for news and information. (Isidore Champagne/CBC)

Media literacy group MediaSmarts is spearheading the Teen Fact-Checking Network in Canada, which has partner editions in the U.S., Brazil, India and Spain. The Ottawa-based organizers whittled applicants down to 16 students (English- and French-speaking) for the inaugural lineup.

The students first participated in a boot camp: learning strategies to analyze online content, taking lessons on how to pitch and develop ideas, as well as building technical skills, such as video editing.

“It was a lot at first,” Ferdousi admitted. But he said the training — which includes reverse image searching, for instance, or tips on detecting pics doctored via artificial intelligence — has levelled up his critical thinking.

“Whenever I’m seeing a story … or when I’m seeing an image, I check for these little signs: if they’re doctored, if they’re not telling the whole story, if they’re missing some context,” he said.

WATCH | A teen from U.S. partner MediaWise digs into unusual Keanu Reeves posts:

MediaSmarts executive director Kathryn Hill believes the amount of information available online is “wonderful,” but that abundance also requires verification of what we find. 

WATCH | Enlisting teens to teach teens, using social media for good:

Enlisting teens to teach teens

Kathryn Hill, executive director of the media literacy organization MediaSmarts, on why teens can be effective teachers for their peers and using social media as a tool for good.

The Teen Fact-Checking Network “is an opportunity to both teach teens directly about how to do that and how to do it well, but also to teach them how to teach others,” she said.

“We can all learn from these” videos, Hill added, since the vision for MediaSmarts is to improve the digital media literacy of all Canadians.

WATCH | MediaWise teen fact-checker analyzes politicized posts starring Taylor Swift: 

Evaluating what’s online

A high school teacher for more than 20 years, Laura McCarron has first-hand knowledge of why students need to learn to analyze material on the internet. 

WATCH | A meme turns into a teachable moment for N.B. teacher:

How a meme became a teachable moment on digital media literacy

New Brunswick social studies teacher Laura McCarron recounts how an alarming meme shared by her students a few years ago underlined why it’s vital teachers incorporate digital media literacy into today’s classrooms.

“Students have more freedom and flexibility to be able to research online … and when they’re looking up anything, it means that they’re not necessarily always looking at [reliable sources],” said the Fredericton social studies teacher. 

“It’s become so much more important as a teacher to be able to establish rules and guidelines.”

In fall 2020, McCarron was among the first teachers to participate in a new digital literacy offering from civic education organization CIVIX.

In a bright high school classroom, a teacher scrolls through an open laptop while two students sitting next to her peer at the screen.
Fredericton social studies teacher Laura McCarron, seen at right with students Declan DeWolfe, centre, and Annie McCaskill, has incorporated more digital media literacy resources, like CIVIX’s Ctrl-F: Find the Facts verification skills program, into what students are learning in different classes. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Called CTRL-F (named for the keyboard shortcut for “find” within a webpage or document), the lessons can be incorporated into the curriculum of various subjects — such as English, social studies, political science, history or media classes. 

The goal is to teach middle and high school students lateral reading techniques, such as digging into who’s behind a specific piece of content and checking what other sources say about a particular topic.

WATCH | Facing an unfamiliar source? Find what another says, suggests digital literacy expert: 

Even with straightforward strategies and tips, however, there’s a learning curve. McCarron has seen students become frustrated when they realize that a Google search doesn’t necessarily generate a trustworthy answer. 

Eventually, though, “they’re heavily engaged in conversation about what is reliable and what is not,” she said. 

“When they leave high school, they can take these tools, they can take these sources and they can continue to use them in everyday learning and understanding the world around them.”

Declan DeWolfe, who is one of McCarron’s students, now has a toolbox of strategies — searching out reliable sources, verifying information — that they developed by completing research assignments over the past few grades. 

The approach has become “less of an explicit thing that you practise in class and more a way that you interact with the internet,” said the Grade 11 student.  

Though the 16-year-old chooses to avoid political or news content when scrolling TikTok (opting to focus on sketch comedy, movies and video game content instead), DeWolfe feels social media users today are bombarded with conflicting opinions, misinformation and disinformation even when they try to avoid it. 

As a result, “it’s extremely important to learn how to discern [what’s] credible” from content “trying to grab your attention for clout reasons or just trying to mislead you.”

A composite photo showing two high school students, each smiling at the camera.
Grade 12 student Annie McCaskill, left, and Grade 11 student Declan DeWolfe have learned strategies to evaluate info found online — whether on YouTube, TikTok, a news site or elsewhere — from teachers who’ve woven digital media literacy into their classes. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Annie McCaskill, a peer in Grade 12, admits to being frustrated by the extra effort required to evaluate multiple online sources. But she agrees it’s important to reinforce the mentality that “not everything is true, we should check that.” 

For example, “we’ve been seeing more articles that are written solely by AI,” said the 17-year-old. “I think that’s a big problem: to just trust whatever’s being said [online], especially now, when there might not even be any human oversight at all.”

A teen boy gestures and smiles broadly to someone off camera to the right, with bright television lights in an indoor space seen behind him.
Teens are aware there’s misinformation online, Ferdousi says, but it’s still easy to trip up. He admits to a recent flub of his own: falling for a post about a Drake concert that turned out to be fake. (Isidore Champagne/CBC)

Back in Ontario, Ferdousi emphasizes students today are aware that fake news, out-of-context posts and doctored images and videos exist online. But it’s easy for impressionable teens to trip up.  

It happened to him just a few weeks ago. A massive Drake fan, he fell for a friend’s TikTok post about a surprise concert, which turned out to be fake. 

So Ferdousi is eager to get to the bottom of suspicious online content — and inspiring other teens to adopt that mindset, too.

“Maybe if their parents are getting tricked by misleading news articles or sites, videos, pictures and those types of things, kids can be their own voice of reason in their homes.”

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