Where’s the Truth Online? How to Build Your Family’s Digital Discernment

By on Jan 25, 2020

Note: This is Part I of a series on equipping your family fight back against fake news online. 

Fake news is chipping away at our trust in the government, the media, and in one another. And, because our kids spend much so much time in the online space, it’s more important than ever to help them understand how to separate truth from fiction.

How dangerous is the spread of misinformation? According to one study, 75% of people who see fake news believe it’s real. This inability to discern is at the core of how a false piece of information — be it a story, a photo, a social post, or an email — spreads like wildfire online.

Fake news erodes trust

A 2019 Pew Institute study reveled Americans rank fake news as a bigger problem in the U.S. over terrorism, illegal immigration, racism, and sexism and believe the spread of fake news is causing ‘significant harm’ to the nation and needs to be stopped.’

At the root of the issue is that too much news is coming at us from too many sources. True or not, millions of people are sharing that information, and they are often driven more by emotion and than fact.

According to Author and Digital Literacy Expert Diana Graber, one of a parent’s most important roles today is teaching kids to evaluate and be discerning with the content they encounter online.

“Make sure your kids know that they cannot believe everything they see or read online. Give them strategies to assess online information. Be sure your child’s school is teaching digital literacy,” says Graber.

Kids encounter and share fake news on social networks, chat apps, and videos. Says Graber, the role of video will rise as a fake news channel as AI technology advances.

“I think video manipulation, such as deepfake videos, is a very important area to keep an eye on for in the future. So much of the media that kids consume is visual, it will be important for them to learn visual literacy skills too,” says Graber.

The hidden costs of fake news

A December Facebook post warning people that men driving white vans were part of an organized human trafficking ring, quickly went viral on several social networks.

Eventually, law enforcement exposed the post as fake; people shrugged it off and moved on. But in its wake, much was lost that didn’t go viral. The fake post was shared countless times. With each share, someone compromised a small piece of trust.

The false post caused digital panic and cast uncertainty on our sense of security and community. The post cost us money. The false information took up the resources of several law enforcement agencies that chose to investigate. It cost us trust. Public warnings even made it to the evening news in some cities.

The spread of fake news impacts on our ability to make wise informed decisions. It chips away at our expectation of truth in the people and resources around us.

Fake news that goes viral is powerful. It can impact our opinions about important health issues. It can damage companies and the stock market, and destroy personal reputations.

In the same Pew study, we learned about another loss — connection. Nearly 54 percent of respondents said they avoid talking with another person because that person may bring made-up news into the conversation.

The biggest loss? When it’s hard to see the truth, we are all less well informed, which creates obstacles to personal and cultural progress.

Family talking points

Here are three digital literacy terms defined to help you launch the fake news discussion.

  1. Fake news: We like the definition offered by PolitiFact: “Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.”Discuss: Sharing fake news can hurt the people in the story as well as the credibility of the person sharing it. No one wants to be known for sharing sketchy content, rumors, or half-truths.Do: Sit down with your kids. Scroll through their favorite social networks and read some posts or stories. Ask: What news stories spark your interest, and why? Who posted this information? Are the links in the article credible? Should I share this piece of content? Why or why not?
  2. Objectivity: Content or statements based on facts that are not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings.Discuss: News stories should be objective (opinion-free), while opinion pieces can be subjective. When information (or a person) is subjective, you can identify personal perspectives, feelings, and opinions. When information (or a person) is objective, it’s void of opinion and based on facts.Do: Teaching kids to recognize objective vs. subjective content can be fun. Pick up a local newspaper (or access online). Read the stories on the front page (they should contain only facts). Flip to the Op-Ed page and discuss the shift in tone and content.
  3. Discernment: A person’s ability to evaluate people, content, situations, and things well. The ability to discern is at the core of decision-making.Discuss: To separate truth from fiction online, we need to be critical thinkers who can discern truth. Critical thinking skills develop over time and differ depending on the age group.Do: Watch this video from Cyberwise on Fake News. Sit down together and Google a current news story. Compare how different news sites cover the same news story. Ask: How are the headlines different? Is there a tone or bias? Which story do you believe to be credible, and why? Which one would you feel confident sharing with others? 

The increase in fake news online has impacted us all. However, with the right tools, we can fight back and begin to restore trust. Next week, in Part II of this series, we’ll discuss our personal responsibility in the fake news cycle and specific ways to identify fake news.

About the Author

Toni Birdsong

Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist for McAfee. She is an author, speaker, and cyber savvy mom of two teenagers (much to their dismay). As a family safety evangelist for McAfee, she focuses on online safety and often speaks to educators, parents, and teens about dodging the dangers online. She is the co-owner of ...

Read more posts from Toni Birdsong

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to McAfee Securing Tomorrow Blogs