With democracies around the world threatened by an unstoppable onslaught of false information, Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to fake news – takes the fight seriously enough to teach it in school.
So how do you teach school kids spot slippery information?
“Fairytales work well. Take the wily fox who always cheats the other animals with his sly words,” says Kivinen, a local education professional. “That’s not a bad metaphor for a certain kind of politician, is it?”
In secondary schools multi-platform information literacy and strong critical thinking have become a core, cross-subject component of a national curriculum that was introduced in 2016.
- In maths lessons, pupils learn how easy it is to lie with statistics
- In art, they see how an image’s meaning can be manipulated
- In history, they analyse notable propaganda campaigns
- In language classes teachers work with pupils on the many ways in which words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive.
“The goal is active, responsible citizens and voters,” Kivinen said. “Thinking critically, fact-checking, interpreting and evaluating all the information you receive, wherever it appears, is crucial. We’ve made it a core part of what we teach, across all subjects.”
The Media Literacy Index was created in 2017 as a response to the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon to measure the potential for resilience to ‘post-truth’, ‘fake-news’ in order to foster democratic resilience in the new media and communication context.
The approach was successful enough for Finland to top, by some margin, an annual index measuring resistance to fake news in 35 European countries, the programme aims to ensure that everyone, from pupil to politician, can detect – and do their bit to fight – false information.
“Kids today don’t read papers or watch TV news which is curated,” he said. “They don’t look for news, they stumble across it, on WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat … Or more precisely, an algorithm selects it, just for them. They must be able to approach it critically. Not cynically – we don’t want them to think everyone lies – but critically.”
How do Finland's educators empower students?
Fake news, Kivinen said, is not a great term, especially for children. Far more useful are three distinct categories:
- Misinformation or “honest mistakes”
- Disinformation or “lies”
- Hoaxes which are not only false but deliberately designed to deceive people into spreading the lie;
- Malinformation or “gossip” which may perhaps be correct but is intended to harm.
"Even quite young children can grasp these categories,” he said.
“They love being detectives. If you also get them questioning real-life journalists and politicians about what matters to them, run mock debates and real school elections, ask them to write accurate and fake reports on them … democracy, and the threats to it, start to mean something.”
He wants his pupils to ask questions such as:
- Who produced this information, and why?
- Where was it published?
- What does it really say?
- Who is it aimed at?
- What is it based on?
- Is there evidence for it, or is this just someone’s opinion?
- Is it verifiable elsewhere?
On the evidence of half a dozen pupils gathered in a classroom before lunchtime, it is an approach that is paying off.
“You must always fact-check. The number one rule: no Wikipedia, and always three or four different and reliable sources,” said Mathilda, 18.
“We learn that basically in every subject.”
Alexander, 17, said he had learned a lot from devising a fake news campaign. Asked why fake news mattered, he said:
“Because you end up with wrong numbers on the side of a bus, and voters who believe them.”
Priya, 16, said education was the best way to fight it.
"The problem is, anyone can publish anything. There’s not much a government can do when they’re faced with big multinationals like Google or Facebook, and if it does too much it’s censorship. So yes, education is what’s most effective.”