Education can help us take on 'fake news'
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
One unexpected aspect of social media has been the lack of friction with which information flows, both within small groups, and into the public consciousness.
On the plus side, there are some wholly admirable and powerful initiatives, such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the campaign to bring Toby Young's views into wider public awareness. More locally, social media is hugely effective in keeping people in touch with remote friends and family. Recently we video-messaged our three sons and their partners at the same time on my phone - remarkable.
On the downside, though, we have "fake news"- taken to a new level by Donald Trump, but he didn't start the trend, with too many recent examples in the UK. All this is easily explained. For politicians, the temptation is always to show their policies in the best light. So, "phonics test scores are improving" is trumpeted as "children are reading better", while a moment of thought explains why new tests always show a rapid improvement in the first years, levelling off as teachers get used to the new system. We also have grassroots campaigns, circulated in good faith but too-often completely false. Here, people who may have experienced a personal tragedy are desperately - and understandably - trying to find reasons and causes, and something to blame, and an upwelling of public opinion can grow very rapidly.
The children's commissioner for England has shown just how difficult and distorting social media can be for children. This goes well beyond the problems of "sexting" into children's management of social relationships generally. Do "likes" or "unfriending" matter? How do children learn about and cope with all this when it's largely invisible to adults? Invisibility, as we all know, can lead to bullying of all sorts.
Does all this matter? Children and young people are adept at using social media, and we can't put that genie back into the bottle. So, the question is what should we do? The social media companies have responsibilities, of course, and we should hold them accountable. Beyond the internet, the mainstream media have an important part to play. Too often they fall into the trap of alarmist or overblown headlines - find your own example in today's papers.
As with many issues, though, the solution comes down to education - education in how to evaluate what you are being told is "news", how to form your own views, and how to avoid or deal with social media bullies and trolls. Teachers can educate children and provide them with support when needed - just as they do with bullying generally.
The Children and Social Work Act 2017 includes provision for the Secretary of State to make regulations about personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE). Damian Hinds could well start his time at Sanctuary Buildings by initiating a national conversation on what should be in compulsory PSHE - ideally before he publishes proposals or appoints a PSHE Tsar.
- John Freeman is a children's services consultant and former DCS. Read his blog at cypnow.co.uk/freemansthinking