Few would challenge the value of helping students develop critical thinking and information literacy. But if such skills are encouraged simply as a reactionary means to challenge knowledge, says danah boyd, the future may look even more chaotic and grim.
Speaking at the morning keynote on the third day of SXSW EDU, boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and the founder and president of Data & Society, offered this provocative observation: “Many of the forms of critical thinking that we’ve introduced into American education are backfiring right now.”
Touching on matters ranging from Russian propaganda efforts to Netflix, history to philosophy, boyd’s intellectually provocative talk raised plenty of deep questions around media and manipulation. But she also admitted there are few clear solutions.
What is media literacy if no one trusts the media?
To be clear, boyd doesn’t believe that critical thinking is inherently bad. Instead, she focused on how the very act of asking questions as a way to challenge narratives has become “weaponized” and manipulated for devious and disguised efforts to undermine public trust.
Those who seek to twist critical thinking to propagate misinformation, suggests boyd, are capitalizing on the fact that public trust in traditional media institutions is declining. That’s not an ungrounded observation: a survey from the Gallup and Knight Foundation last year found that “most Americans believe it is now harder to be well-informed and to determine which news is accurate. They increasingly perceive the media as biased and struggle to identify objective news sources.”
In today’s world, individuals have become emboldened to believe that they can—and should—take it upon themselves to check facts and discern truths from falsehoods.
Recent news of Russia-based efforts to spread misinformation and the broader “fake news” phenomenon have spurred educational, media and governmental organizations to double down on efforts to promote media literacy. Educational groups, from Common Sense Media to PBS, have introduced online curricula designed to help teachers teach the topic. Often these tools include lessons on checking facts and analyzing sources for biases.
Yet these exercises, while valuable, can perpetuate an even bigger problem if framed in the wrong context. “Right now, the conversation around fact checking has devolved to suggest that there is only one truth. We have to recognize that there are plenty of students who are taught that there is only one legitimate way of thinking, one accepted worldview,” boyd said.
“Funders, journalists, social media companies and elected officials all say they want a ‘media literacy solution.’ I don’t know what it is, [but] I hope it’s not a version that’s just CNN versus Fox News,” she added.
By describing the goal of media literacy as a way to discover the truth, adults may actually reinforce the message that there is only one explanation, a strict, black-and-white line between what’s right and wrong. That thinking generally does not sit well for adolescents and young adults, who may be naturally inclined to challenge authority and seek alternative explanations, said boyd.
“Many people especially young people turn to online communities to make sense of the world around them. They want to ask uncomfortable questions, interrogate assumptions and poke holes at things they’ve learned,” she said. “But there are some questions that we’ve told them are unacceptable to ask in public.” In response, they’ve taken to online forums, some of which “have popped up to encourage people to go down certain paths of thinking—some of them being deeply extreme” in their views.
So what can teachers do?
For the majority of her keynote, boyd painted a gloomy picture of how good intentions around critical thinking can be manipulated into perpetuating confusion and extremist views. But if checking facts and sources are not enough, what’s the right approach to media literacy?
“I don’t know,” boyd admitted. “I am lost.”
Speaking metaphorically, boyd called for developing “antibodies to help people not be deceived.” But she admits this is tricky as most people believe their gut and don’t want to hear that they’re being tricked. “There may be some value in trying to help people understand their own psychology.”
On a more practical level, boyd urged attendees to “help young people understand epistemological differences.” The term generally refers to questions over the nature of knowledge and how beliefs about what’s right or wrong are constructed. One question that she believes is valuable for teachers to explore with students is: “Why do people from different worldviews interpret the same piece of information differently?”
The challenge, she said, is making sure that media literacy and critical thinking are not deployed in the classroom as “an assertion of authority over epistemology.”
Boyd also suggested that some of the adolescents driven to extremist online communities do so out of a struggle to find their identity and make sense of the world around them.
“They are vulnerable because they are lost themselves. And these are the people who have figured out how to use online tools to regain control. They find that power not in disrupting your classroom, but in disrupting the entire information landscape.”