Guest Blog: St Benedict’s School’s Julie Greenhough, EPQ Coordinator @EPQguru

Pandemic. Epidemic. Endemic. Epizootic. Whilst vigorously hand washing at school I have been pondering the sudden proliferation of vocabulary connected to the current infectious respiratory virus threatening global healthcare, otherwise known as Covid-19. This includes the blend term ‘infodemic’ (The Guardian, 28 February 2020) in relation to the situation in Italy. Defined as ‘an excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult’, this seems to aptly sum things up.

The media reporting is grim. So I was pleased to note, tucked away in the health advice section of The Evening Standard, the positive suggestion to ‘stay up to date…using trusted sources of information. Be wary of fake news on social media and avoid sharing rumours’ (March 9 2020).

If only that advice had been earlier, louder and clearer we may have avoided such alarmist headlines as, ‘False news warning as Minister tries to calm fears’ (The Guardian, 28 February 2020) in which it is reported that eBay listings for a single face mask are euro 1200 or pack of five for euro 5000 and hand sanitisers, usually retailing for 3 euros, selling for 50 euros.

Accompanied by the now ubiquitous images of empty supermarket shelves, is there any wonder that there is an air of mild panic? That myths and misinformation are circulating? I counter the pupils assertion that the Coronavirus has anything to do with 5G ‘because Wuhan is where 5G was rolled out first’ and ‘5G damages your immune system’ by showing them how to fact check using fullfact.org, the UK’s independent fact checking charity. Here we read that Public Health England show that the later assertion is totally unfounded. Wuhan was among one of the first places to roll out 5G but then so were Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

It is not just fake words that are circulating, there are also fake images. Shared widely on social media, one image featured in The Sun had the heading ‘Chilling satellite pictures show extent of corpse burning in Wuhan’ (February 10 2020). Again, we use fact checking to establish that this alleged satellite image, which also ran in The Express and The Metro was not showing high levels of sulphur dioxide purportedly released when there are mass cremations; it was not even a satellite image. It originated from NASA and was an image showing weather patterns and historical information on sulphur dioxide emissions.

Ah the pupils tell me; the virus comes from a laboratory with a similar logo to one from the fictional game franchise Resident Evil. But as fullfact.org explains, the laboratory referred to is not in Wuhan it is in Shanghai (January 30 2020). We also debunk the myth surrounding the image of a bottle of Dettol disinfection reassuring them that the company did not know about the Coronavirus before the rest of the world.

Fake words. Fake images. And now ‘fake numbers’. The President of the United States calling the World Health Organisation’s global death rate from coronavirus ‘a really false number’ in a live phone interview on Fox News (March 5 2020) really does not help.

I realise that what is missing when encountering information about the virus is a position of criticality; the ability to filter between misinformation (false information used without the intended malice of disinformation) and disinformation (false information spread deliberately to deceive). How then do we follow the health advice and separate the ‘fake’ from the ‘real’ whilst critically navigating copious amounts of information on the topic? Importantly, how do we manage the broader pedagogical problem (for it is a problem) of how to deal with ‘fake news’ with our pupils?

CILIP advises that libraries are great places to turn to for information on Covid-19. Librarians are sources of accurate information to rely on and to share with confidence (CILIP March 2020). I realise here that I am already preaching to the converted.

As such times illustrate, we are all at risk from bad information: pupils, teachers, parents. We all need to acquire a position of criticality, to be able to challenge perceived truths. More importantly, we need to ensure that those stakeholder groups care enough about the facts to make the required effort to assume a position of criticality and actively do something about it. Most stakeholders assume they can already filter fake news and find the truth; evidence and experience suggests otherwise. Often there is a lack of consideration, not only of the content, but of the sources of that information. The ease with which information is shared with our friends and followers on social media becomes a form of tacit recommendation; people are more likely to then accept the message. The binary argument of explaining to stakeholders of knowing/not knowing that something is fake news is outmoded.

Last December (2019) at the JCS conference, I was inspired by listening to the keynote speech given by Professor McDougall to find a way that all of our stakeholders have the tools of critical media literacy at their disposal, to be resilient to fake news in all its formats. With the support of the Head, the school has formed a working party on critical digital literacy skills. We are incorporating staff CPD led by myself and our School Librarian; we are opening up our e-resources to parents (securely) and offering training on how to use them effectively. We are giving a lecture on the search for truth in a post-truth age based on our workshop from the same conference.

Key to making all of this happen is collaboration. In this regard, I am blessed to work with Emma Wallace, Chartered Librarian (@LibraryWallace). Our inter-professional partnership has been critical in providing our pupils with access to such resources as ‘The Day’, e-resources including JSTOR Secondary Schools Collection, Hodder Education A Level Magazines Archive, and MASSOLIT, and searching skills such as deploying Boolean search operatives. Our aim: to enable all our stakeholders to recognise and to question – to move from uncritical, complacent dependency on social media. We are following the advice of Dr Graham Gardner in a previous JCS blog to ‘…be committed to helping students find the truth of what you’re teaching in their own lives’ (January 2020).

We aim to give our pupils agency, to be active not passively absorbing what they read and what they see because ‘agentive people are less vulnerable’ (Professor McDougall keynote speech at JCS Conference November 2019). “Not having agency makes us more susceptible to propaganda, to hate speech, to a rise in xenophobia. If we abandon facts, then we are in danger of abandoning freedom” (Synder 2017). We need to be vigilant over facts and search for the truth.

Read more from Julie:

Is the answer that we no longer know how to ask a ‘good’ question?

Weathering the storm: repositioning the role of the librarian

Presentation: Can you navigate the potential pitfalls of the open web?

Sources:

J. McDougall (2019) ‘Fake news vs. media studies: travels in a false binary’ Palgrave Macmillan. Plus his keynote speech The Uses of Literacy Today at ‘JCS 2019 Digital Literacy in Schools: building capabilities’, 29-30 November 2019, University of Aston.

CILIP: cilip.org.uk

FullFact: fullfact.org

Gardner. G (Jan 2020) blog on JCS ‘How teaching neuroscience and social psychology can help in the fight against fake news.

Synder, T. (2017) ‘On Tyranny: 20 lessons from the 20th century’. Bodley Head.