‘The danger it poses to our democracy’: Digital literacy standards to help Delaware students discern truth from fiction

Delaware State Capitol Building in Dover. (Paul Brady/Bigstock)

Delaware State Capitol Building in Dover. (Paul Brady/Bigstock)

Not long after the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. that followed President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally, Delaware state Senators Sarah McBride and Laura Sturgeon were talking about the election lies that fueled the anger and uprising.

“We discussed the prevalence of disinformation and misinformation online and the danger that it poses not just to our democracy as a concept, but to people’s safety and well-being,” McBride recalled.

“And then I began to have conversations with educators. About what they were doing or what they were seeing in their schools, what’s happening around combating this misinformation and disinformation? And some educators were teaching to this but unfortunately, there weren’t statewide standards that ensured common efforts to achieve this goal.”

McBride, Sturgeon, and other lawmakers set out to change that. Their efforts, in collaboration with the state Department of Education, led to a bill that would require the department to set “evidence-based media literacy standards” for school districts and charter schools to incorporate into learning plans for K-12 students.

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The legislation recently passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting Gov. John Carney’s signature.

The standards, which take effect in the upcoming academic year, are to be used to provide instruction in two main areas: digital media literacy to help students differentiate between fact and fiction online, and understanding the detrimental effects of “inappropriate technology use” such as bullying and harassment via social media.

They can be taught by teachers of English, social studies, health, science, and other subjects, or by librarians/media specialists, if schools have one.

McBride said the measure “allows educators to really address these two significant, insidious problems: a mental health crisis exacerbated by online bullying and a democratic crisis fostered by disinformation, misinformation.”

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One guiding principle of the effort was a recent Stanford University survey of high school students which found that 96% lacked the skills to judge the reliability of information online, and two-thirds were unable to tell the difference between news articles and advertisements.

A story on Stanford’s website said that “researchers found that students were too easily swayed by relatively weak indicators of credibility—a website’s appearance, the characteristics of its domain name, the site’s ‘about’ page, or the sheer quantity of information available on a website, irrespective of the quality of that information.”

Although the bill was triggered by the bogus allegations of voter fraud that Trump and some fellow Republicans perpetuated after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, McBride stressed that the standards won’t be teaching any ideology — just how to discern the truth and spot lies.

She acknowledged that Republican opposition — no GOP senators and only four GOP members of the House supported the bill — was fueled by the sense that it was an attempt at “teaching students what to think, not how to think” and was anti-Republican.

“I think there were misconceptions about what this is,” McBride said. “I think there was a self-selecting into this being a critique of a singular political party. This is not a Democratic or Republican problem. This is truly for all of us.”

Kids today ‘are complete digital consumers’

The standards and materials must include instruction on:

  • The purpose and acceptable use of different social media platforms.
  • Understanding the negative impact of inappropriate technology use, including online bullying and harassment, hacking, viruses, invasion of privacy, and piracy.
  • Social media behavior that promotes cybersafety, cybersecurity, and cyberethics, including etiquette, security, and the identification of hate speech.
  • Identifying credible sources of information and how to access, analyze, create, and participate in all forms of digital communication.
  • Understanding how media messages shape culture and society, identifying target-marketing strategies and techniques of persuasion, recognizing bias and misinformation, and evaluating media messages based on personal experiences, skills, beliefs, and values.
  • Identifying the purpose of explicit and implicit media messages, values, and points of view that are included and excluded, how media influences ideas and behaviors, and the importance of using multiple sources.

Every three years, DOE must prepare a written report about how districts and charter schools implemented the standards.

DOE spokeswoman Alison May said students “need these skills to critically consider information” and “evaluate multiple forms of media sources and analyze the information found.”

May said “clear standards” will assist educators in ”assisting students in determining the credibility of sources, analyzing information, safely participating in online conversations, and encouraging strong digital citizenship.”

Kristin Dwyer, who oversees legislative strategy for the state teachers’ union, said that since school librarians are a “dying breed” in Delaware and nationwide, the responsibility for teaching the standards will mostly fall to instructors across multiple subjects.

Teaching kids about being accurate, citing sources, and doing proper research is already infused in lesson plans, Dwyer said. And while she supports the push for digital literacy, she is concerned that it just puts more on the plate of teachers.

“They’re needed now more than ever because we just live online,” she said of students. “But I’m going to say it a thousand times. If you’re going to add something to a teacher’s plate, you have to take something off.”

She hopes state education leaders get input from those in the classroom in developing the standards, and that training will be available too.

Yet in the digital age, Dwyer said teachers realize the lessons are critical.

“Gosh, just go on Facebook and look at the ads that come up on Facebook just to get clickbait. Right? And they’ll say anything just to get you to click,” Dwyer said.

Kids “are complete digital consumers. And it is really, really important for them to understand what it is they’re reading and what’s authentic, what’s accurate, what’s not.”

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