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Educators help children and teens learn how to identify fake news

A photo of a desktop with a colorful keyboard in the children's section of the Kalamazoo Public Library's Central Branch. The desktop has the Wonder Media website on the screen.
Kalloli Bhatt
The Wonder Media Library website has a dedicated tab on this computer in the children's section of the Central Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Last year at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, kids could learn about how misinformation is made and how to avoid it. Now the media scholar behind the exhibit is adapting it for libraries.

Katie Murdock teaches at the Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts in Kalamazoo.

“What are the clues?" she asks the students in one class. "So let me show you the image. Are you ready?”

The image she shows is from a website called Rumor Guard, created by the nonprofit News Literacy Project, to help teach how to identify misinformation. It’s a picture generated by artificial intelligence of a McDonalds’ Happy Meal with black hamburger buns sandwiching a red patty that is on fire. Next to the meal is a figurine of a demon.

“So just take a second and think about it to yourself,” said Murdock. She wants the students to think about how they could verify the information.

After seeing the image, students discussed among themselves about how they could find out if it was doctored. Student Aidan Foley offered this method.

“So you could go to McDonalds’ and check on their, like, screen ordering menu and look through the burgers and see if they actually had something like that,” said Foley.

Those students probably realized that McDonalds was not serving demonic Happy Meals. But the techniques Murdock asked them to use are what’s going to prepare them for identifying something that’s not so obviously fake, like a robocall with an AI simulation of President Joe Biden’s voice.

According to the Pew Research Center, close to a fifth of US adults often get their news from social media. Murdock said if students aren’t taught how to differentiate between a criminal conspiracy and a conspiracy theory, they can end up in information bubbles that are hard to break out of.

A new exhibit for libraries

That concern also drove the “Wonder Media” exhibit that ran through last year at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Sue Ellen Christian is a communications professor at Western Michigan University. The exhibit was her idea. Full disclosure: I’m a former student of Christian’s. We met in her office on campus.

“It’s really important for our entire society to think about the importance of facts and truth to a democracy,” said Christian. “And without an informed citizenry, we cannot have a healthy democracy.”

Christian recently received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, based in Washington D.C., to adapt the Wonder Media exhibit for public libraries. It’s designed to reach middle-school-age children.

Mainly, with her grant, Christian wants to develop something for students whose schools do not have librarians anymore. The website associated with the exhibit has resources for students, teachers, and libraries.

Different portrayals

Providing information from all sides is also a part of the Wonder Media Library website. It includes videos of people from different backgrounds explaining positive and negative media portrayals of their communities. One video is from an elder of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi talking about depictions of Native American culture. Christian said media portrayals are important.

“If everyone that you see on television doesn’t look like you, you begin to have issues, as we know from scholarship, of lower self-esteem, of not fitting in,” said Christian.

The Kalamazoo Public Library’s Central Branch already has the Wonder Media Library website in its children’s room. Sandra Farag is the head of youth services at the library.

“[Bringing media literacy to libraries] is going to be a huge undertaking, but I think this is a perfect project for all libraries to adopt for youth and, hopefully, for adults going further,” said Farag.

Back at the Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, teacher Katie Murdock said middle school students know the old ways misinformation and disinformation was spread.

“They know how you and I were duped, and probably continue to be duped, but they are less aware of how they are,” said Murdock.

She said as kids and adults navigate the media landscape, they should believe in themselves. But also, give themselves permission to be wrong, view evidence in a different way and change their minds.