Winnipeg students learning the skills needed to deal with online misinformation, disinformation

It’s a Tuesday morning at Dakota Collegiate in Winnipeg and a Grade 9 social studies class has just begun. 

“In 2022, how many of you when you have to start research for this class, that class, any class, how many of you go to [the] library first?” asks teacher-librarian Kevin Osachuk. 

“I really could use a cricket sound effect,” he goes on to say, before pointing out the laptops and smart phones sitting on their desks that give them instant access to information. 

The question is part of a lesson Osachuk teaches at the Grade 9-12 class called “Information Literacy in the Age of Fake News.” 

At a time when the spread of disinformation and misinformation online has the potential to affect people’s choices, from their health to where they stand on issues such as climate change, Osachuk thinks teaching students how to verify information and find and use credible sources is critical.  

“I’ve never felt it’s a more important time for teacher-librarianship and information literacy skills,” Osachuk said in an interview with CBC News. 

“I’m a dad and a teacher, and seeing how quickly and pervasive misinformation-disinformation are spread makes me very concerned.”

In the lesson Osachuk explains that what you hear about issues ranging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to COVID-19 vaccines will change depending on where the information comes from.  

He discusses concepts such as bias, how to search for information on databases, explains the difference between misinformation and disinformation and the importance of checking multiple sources.  

“What we want is for our students to be able to make up their own minds,” he said, and have the skills to check out information for themselves. 

Angela Remillard, a teacher and head of the English department at Ecole Kelvin High School, has been teaching English for nearly two decades, but has started putting greater emphasis on misinformation and disinformation in recent years. (Travis Golby/CBC )

Learning how to interpret, critique and analyze news outlets, social media and novels is part of what Kelvin High School English teacher Angela Remillard says she’s teaching students. 

One of her projects involves using a media bias chart in the shape of a horseshoe that represents left, right and centre as a way to analyze several articles on a single topic. 

“It’s amazing how once they look at that across three spectrums they’re, like, it is not consistent at all. And I find that it’s not saying what is right, it’s just, can you pinpoint the language use and what that’s trying to convince you of,” she said.

Remillard has been teaching English for nearly two decades, but has started putting greater emphasis on misinformation and disinformation in recent years.  

Teaching students how to navigate the information that’s out there helps them now, and as they graduate and become voters, she says. 

“I think if we don’t give students these tools, then they’re more susceptible to being part of scams, they’re more susceptible to listening to the loudest voices or what’s shared the most on social media, and that’s not necessarily the truth,” Remillard said. 

Begin media literacy early

Matthew Johnson, the director of education for MediaSmarts, says talking about media literacy or misinformation can start as early as kindergarten.

“It really is a matter of talking about it in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for the age of the child, and also relating it to topics and activities that make sense for that age,” he said.

MediaSmarts is a non-profit organization focused on digital media literacy that provides resources for educators and families to help teach young people skills to understand and engage with all media, Johnson says.

Social media has led to more misinformation, he says. 

And, he adds, there has seen an uptick in the inquiries and the number of people using the group’s materials in the last few years.

“It’s always interesting to see what topics people are more interested in, because finding and verifying was something that for a long time we had trouble getting people interested in,” he said. “But certainly for the last couple of years it has been top of mind for a lot of people.” 

Grade 9 Dakota Collegiate students Taylor Pritchard, left, and Agam Rakhra say they’ve learned to wary of stories they find on social media. (Alana Cole/CBC)

At Dakota Collegiate, Agam Rakhra,15, tells CBC he spends quite a bit of time on Instagram and TikTok when class is over. However, he knows you can’t always trust what you see. 

“Misinformation about certain things, like fitness, is one example.” he said. 

His classmate Taylor Pritchard, also 15, has seen a lot of videos on TikTok about the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. But says she tries to make sure what she hears on social media reflects what she’s also hearing from reliable sources. 

“Lots of time you hear things that don’t really connect or don’t really fit in with things you’re hearing around you and stuff like that,” she said, “so it’s always good to make sure you’re listening to reliable things.”

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