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'Everything's Worth A Fact-Check': Network Teaches Teens To Debunk Online Myths

This combination of file pictures shows Twitter logos on a computer screen and the logo of social network Facebook. (Nicolas Asfouri,lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images)
This combination of file pictures shows Twitter logos on a computer screen and the logo of social network Facebook. (Nicolas Asfouri,lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images)

On top of debunking more than 400 claims in two years, the Mediawise Teen Fact-Checking Network teaches young people how to research online information.

The project is the brainchild of the not-for-profit Poynter Institute, supported by the Google News Initiative. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 18-year-old fact-checker Thea Barrett has dispelled misinformation ranging from whether face masks are harmful to paranoia over contact tracing apps.

Masks don’t cause hypercapnia or carbon dioxide poisoning — but instead keep people safe, she found. Some online users wrongfully believed contact tracing apps were automatically downloaded onto mobile phones as a government spy tactic, but in reality, people voluntarily opted in to prevent the spread of the virus.

Barrett also checked a piece of misinformation that said people need to stay 27 feet apart to social distance, as opposed to the 6 feet recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Fact-checking tips from Mediawise help teens spot all types of misinformation beyond just conspiracy theories, says Alexa Volland, multimedia reporter and head of TFCN. Mediawise was originally created to teach teenagers how to sort fact from fiction online — and evidence shows high school students struggle with this.

“What makes the Teen Fact-Checking Network unique is that our teens are using social media storytelling to virtually walk viewers through every step of how they fact-checked these claims,” Volland says.

Using Instagram as their main platform, TFCN teaches teens skills and tools that professional journalists and fact-checkers use, she says. Fact-checkers will share screen recordings of their Google searches, as well as reverse image or video searches, and show the results.

Reverse searches revealed that photos and videos related to the Black Lives Matter movement were taken out of context, she says. This type of search allows people to find out if an image exists elsewhere online, if it’s been digitally manipulated or if it’s a few years old.

One viral video showed protesters trying to break into the White House, she says, but TFCN found the video was from Ohio.

TFCN encourages teens to ask themselves three questions, Volland says: “Who was behind the information? What’s the evidence? And what are other sources saying?”

The network encourages young adults to go straight to reputable sources instead of taking information posted on social media as fact, Barrett says. TFCN also asks teens to read sources from both sides of the aisle to determine what’s true.

An Instagram poll found 86% of respondents say they’re more likely to fact-check on their own after seeing a TFCN story.

“We’ve definitely gotten some pushback, but we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback because people are seeing this misinformation going around on their timeline,” Barrett says. “And they want to know what is the truth? How can I keep my family safe? Is this viral post legit?”

As a first-time voter this November, Barrett says there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding candidates and how to vote. With so much misinformation coming from the Trump administration, it’s difficult to decipher what’s real or fake, she says.

With the Black Lives Matter movement, she says she sees young people sharing false posts about things police officers or protesters have done. She also sees many posts making incorrect claims about climate change.

This misinformation latches onto young people’s fears, she says.

“If something online gives you an intense emotional reaction, that’s a clue that it could be misinformation, if it makes you feel really angry or if it makes you feel validated,” Volland says. “So instead of impulsively resharing, we really encourage teenagers and everyone to just hit the pause button and make sure that they have full context.”

Since teens’ timelines look so different from what adults see on social media, Volland says it’s been interesting to see what misinformation is targeted at young people. Media literacy education teaches teens to question whether what they’re reading is backed by evidence or supported by other sources.

Teens tend to read one online source and move on, but TFCN encourages them to practice lateral reading — a term coined by the Stanford History Education Group that means opening up several tabs and reading across all of them, she says. The network also recommends teens read beyond headlines and search keywords from articles they read in another tab to learn more.

“As long as social media exists, I think misinformation, out of context claims will find their way on people’s timelines,” Volland says. “And in my book, everything’s worth a fact check.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

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