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Five Things We Should Learn (and Teach) About the Facebook Debacle

You’ve probably noticed that Facebook has been doing a lot of apologizing lately. Its recent data privacy and propaganda scandals have really made online users much more cautious about who to trust with their personal information and what to believe online.

For educators, it has yielded a whole new “call to action” toward more direct and comprehensive “digital literacy” curricula in our school systems. Our students need to be prepared for the many ways their online world can be exploited and how quickly clickbait can lead to a very real misinformed populace. Today, Education World explores some things we should all learn from the Facebook debacle.

1. Site credibility is an indispensable skill.

There’s a lot of nonsense online. And even the trained eye sometimes struggles with distinguishing the fact from fiction, for as we become more evaluative consumers of information, content creators become better at deception. The Facebook fiasco brought to light exactly how tangled this web of misinformation has grown over the years.

Our students are not immune to these tricks. Although they are constantly exposed to fictitious content, and if anything have been desensitized to it: anything could be true or not true, so it doesn’t matter. The automatic assumption that “kids know technology better” is somewhat inaccurate and, at worst, a teacher cop-out for not wanting to dive into tough or unfamiliar skills and concepts. Younger generations might have more experience with manipulating and learning new hardware and software. However, critical evaluation of any text is not instinctual – it must be taught.

Unfortunately, there is no “silver bullet” or infallible checklist for deciding whether or not a site can be trusted. It’s more nuanced than all if that. Instead, students need to be taught what elements of a web site are “good signs” and what elements are “things to worry about”. We’ve shared some of these considerations in our “Ultimate Guide to Teaching Source Credibility”. Once students have thoroughly evaluated a work, they can then make an informed decision on whether or not to trust it.

2. Those that control what you see, also control what you think.

Let that one sink in. 67% of U.S. adults get their news from social media platforms. With the recent “fake news” controversies online, we learned how easily advertisers can exploit Facebook’s algorithms to manipulate what the public sees on their feed. These same paying advertisers have been feeding into extremism, capitalizing on fears and insecurities, and taking advantage of behavioral and social psychology to both misrepresent our world and influence how we feel about it.

A well-rounded knowledge of current events and popular discourse can help us to navigate our online universe. We need to teach students that all sources should be cross-referenced, not only for verification purposes, but for understanding differing perspectives on an issue. The more our students understand opposing sides of a contemporary debate, the quicker they will be able to identify biases and critically question the viability and potential motivation behind a post. When students understand that what they are able to access through the lens of their favorite social media platform can be curated, they can more mindfully choose their emotional responses.

3. Clickbait has multiple agendas.

Knowing the motivation behind those tantalizing ads and articles that cascade down our glowing screens on the daily can help students to better sort through the media avalanche. Clickbait has a very specific gameplan, and it is usually trying to deceive you.

Students often hear that people create clickbait to make money. But when they know that cash isn’t coming from their pockets directly, their concern disappears. Younger generations are not as prone to throwing their money at nonsense advertisements and scams. However, knowing that companies are more than willing to pay for advertising space on well-frequented web sites can change how you see the wild claims being made at the margins of your screen. Students should know that site developers can make money from how many visits they get in a day, and that many of them will create irresistibly tempting and absurd headlines to get your click. The click might seem harmless. But the attached misinformation can be poisonous.

The concerns about the manipulation of political opinion using clickbait gave us another reason to be analytical. The truth is, unfortunately, that these are people in the world that are willing to lie to the general public in order to push their personal agendas. A great rule of thumb to share with students is that if a headline seems too good to believe, it probably is…and to be especially concerned if content either disagrees or agrees too acutely with your own views. These are tricks clickbaiters use to bait you.

4. Be mindful of online anonymity.

This is not a new message for helping students to be safe online. However, the investigation into how Facebook and other social media sites were being utilized to sway popular opinions drew attention to the power of online “trolls”.

Not only is clickbait and “fake news” being created to hack our worldview, individual user accounts are also often created to proselytize on comment boards, spread misinformation, and discredit rational and evidence-based arguments. Not only can these accounts sway public opinion with misinformation and emotional manipulation, they can also start to change how we think about humanity. When we feel mistreated by someone pretending to disagree with us on an issue close to our hearts, we start to wonder if this is who “the other” really is and what they stand for. It gives us an unreasonable and inaccurate sense of the people in our community.

In response, students should be keenly aware of the anecdotal, ad hominem, and appeal to emotion fallacies in rhetoric, as they are common in online debate. They should also be aware of the three modes of persuasion, and if someone they are engaging with online is relying too much on pathos, using questionable sources for logos, or appeals to weak authorities for their ethos, they should be skeptical.

5. It takes a lot of work to make your online information “private”.

People like to share the warning that “anything you put online is public and stays there forever.” This is a half-truth. And yet, probably a safer approach to personal online security.

To start, most online users are not aware of how complex the security settings are on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Each site has multiple toggles for what information you’d like to share, who you’d like to share that information with, how much of it is discoverable in an online search, and what information you’d like to keep completely private. These settings options also change over time, so it’s important to “re-check” your privacy settings periodically.

The next hurdle comes in the form of apps and other types of software and their “terms of service”. You know that long document no one ever wants read before they download a program? It became a common joke. Well, as we discovered, a lot of those third-party apps were basically asking for exceptions to the privacy and security settings you had already managed when setting up your social media account. Whenever you were accessing Farmville, taking an online quiz to share, or in some cases downloading very popular iPhone and Android apps, you were allowing extended access to your personal information.

Students need to know not only how to secure these settings, but how they get circumvented and how that information ultimately gets used.

Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.