Confronting Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
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Lesson

Confronting Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information

Students learn about different types of false, misleading and manipulative content in circulation, and consider what they can do to avoid believing in, and sharing, such content.

Duration

One 50-min class period

Language

English — UK

Published

Updated

This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

Overview

About This Lesson

This is the fifth lesson in a unit designed to help teachers have conversations with students about media literacy in a critical, reflective and constructive way. Use these lessons to help students reflect on the changing media and information landscape; understand how this landscape impacts individuals, communities and society; and consider how they can thoughtfully and responsibly engage with content they encounter online and in print. This learning can also help them become conscientious content creators. Supporting students to develop as critical consumers and creators of information is vital for their well-being, their relationships and our democracy.

This lesson introduces students to the different types of false, misleading and manipulative content in circulation, and helps them consider what they can do to avoid believing in, and sharing, such content. In the activities, students reflect on how false information spreads, are introduced to the terms ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’ and ‘mal-information’, and learn about the techniques used to spread these types of information disorder. Students then discuss and evaluate ways to respond to misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, and reflect on how they will use what they have learnt to shape their consumption/engagement habits going forward.

How can developing our media literacy support our well-being, our relationships and our democracy?

  • What are misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, how do they spread, and what are their impacts? 
  • What actions can individuals take to respond to and avoid spreading misinformation, disinformation and mal-information?
  • Students will understand what misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are, and the different techniques used to spread them.
  • Students will be able to identify actions they can take to prevent the spread of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes the following student materials:

  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 handout

In the present day, the information landscape is full of false and misleading content, some of which, like disinformation and mal-information, has been created with the intent to spread harm and manipulate people, and some of which, like misinformation, is created and shared accidentally.  

To capture the extent and complexity of this polluted information landscape, Claire Wardle, a journalism researcher, and Hossein Derakhshan, a journalist, coined the phrase ‘information disorder’. 1 The coining of this phrase was a response to the widespread use of ‘fake news’, which not only oversimplifies the type of false and misleading information shared and created, but which has also been weaponised by those in power. Politicians globally call content ‘fake news’ to attack and undermine the media when it attempts to hold them to account and prevent the abuse of power. 

All types of information disorder are disseminated through a range of methods, but the advent of the Internet and social media have made it far easier to distribute. So while misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are not new, they are facilitated by advances in technology.

Journalists Julie Posetti and Alice Matthews note,

[T]he arrival of the internet in the late 20th century, followed by social media in the 21st century, dramatically multiplied the risks of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and hoaxes. Both errors and fraudulent content now go viral through peer-to-peer distribution (many-to-many communication), while news satire is regularly misunderstood and reshared as straight news by unwitting social media users. We now inhabit a world with computational propaganda, state-sponsored ‘sock-puppet networks’, 2 troll armies, and technology that can mimic legitimate news websites and seamlessly manipulate audio and video to create synthetic representations of any number of sources. 3

This landscape of information disorder sows doubt over what the truth is, reduces trust in reputable media sources, and is dangerous for social cohesion and democracy as people seek out views that align with their own and/or create facts that reinforce their perspectives. Moreover, nefarious actors sow discord and doubt in order to avoid being held to account. 

It is also very difficult to counter the impacts of information disorder. 

Beth Goldberg, Research Program Manager at Jigsaw, notes,

One of the reasons misinformation is so pernicious is its ability to continue to influence thinking long after someone initially sees it. In fact, misinformation often persists even after someone has been shown a factual correction of the false claim. This is because misinformation can be “sticky,” meaning it can have what experts call a “continued influence effect” on someone’s memory and reasoning long after seeing it.

Debunking is especially difficult with conspiracy theories, which are often believed at an emotional, rather than rational, level. 4

According to the Debunking Handbook 2020, which was collectively authored by academics from twenty universities around the world, one of the most effective ways to tackle misinformation is to ‘prevent it taking root in the first place’. 5

Prevention strategies include ‘simply warning people that they might be misinformed’, ‘encouraging people to critically evaluate information as they read it’ and ‘helping people become more discerning in their sharing behavior’. 6

There is also a process known as ‘psychological inoculation’.

Beth Goldberg further explains,

Inoculation protects people against disinformation 7 by teaching them to spot and refute a misleading claim. Inoculation messages can build up people’s resistance or “mental antibodies” to encountering misinformation in the future, the way vaccines create antibodies that fight against future infection. 8

If people have already been exposed to misinformation, its misleading content can be countered by ‘debunking’ – though, as stated above, this process can be difficult. To be effective, the debunking process must be detailed and must involve giving people the facts, alongside warnings that the content they have encountered is a myth and explanations on how the myth has been used to mislead people.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

We have opted to use the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ rather than ‘fake news’ in this unit as this term has become increasingly problematic and fails to capture the extent of the misinformation problem. Journalists Cherilyn Ireton and Julie Posetti explain, ‘the phrase is inherently vulnerable to being politicised and deployed as a weapon against the news industry, as a way of undermining reporting that people in power do not like’. 1

Depending on your students’ prior knowledge, you may need to provide them with the following definitions before or during the lesson. Consider adding the following terms to your Word Wall:

  • Information disorder (noun): A term used to describe how the current information landscape is full of false, misleading, harmful and deceptive information, such as misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. 
  • Misinformation (noun): False or inaccurate information that is spread by people who do not realise it is false or misleading. 
    Please note, this term is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all types of false or inaccurate information, shared with intent or not.
  • Disinformation (noun): False or inaccurate information that is intentionally spread to mislead and manipulate people, often to make money, cause trouble or gain influence.
  • Mal-information (noun): Information that is based on the truth, although it may be exaggerated or presented out of context, that is shared with an intent to attack an idea, individual, organisation or country, etc.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

Inform students that in today’s lesson, they will be exploring how and why false and manipulated information is believed and shared. 

As a settler task, you may wish to ask students to note down anything that comes to mind when they hear the term ‘information disorder’ and invite one or two students to briefly share their view.

Next, explain to students that while some types of this information are spread accidentally, others are spread on purpose with the aim of deceiving people and attacking ideas, nations and/or people. While the spreading of such information is not new, developments in technology have made it much easier to disseminate. 

Share the following terms with students, explaining that these terms are preferable to the term ‘fake news’, which fails to capture the complexities concerning the different types of false and manipulated information, and which has been used by people to discredit information that is true: 

  • Information disorder (noun): A term used to describe how the current information landscape is full of false, misleading, harmful and deceptive information, such as misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. 
  • Misinformation (noun): False or inaccurate information that is spread by people who do not realise it is false or misleading. 
    Example: Katie reads an article about the moon landing being fake. Believing it to be true, she shares it with her friends and family. 
    Please note, this term is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all types of false or inaccurate information, shared with intent or not.
  • Disinformation (noun): False or inaccurate information that is intentionally spread to mislead and manipulate people, often to make money, cause trouble or gain influence.
    Example: During Barack Obama’s presidency, people intentionally spread false information alleging he was born in Kenya to undermine him and make people question his presidency. To be President of America you have to have been born in the United States. 
  • Mal-information (noun): Information that is based on the truth, although it may be exaggerated or presented out of context, that is shared with an intent to attack an idea, individual, organisation or country, etc. 
    Example: Revenge porn is a form of mal-information as it is shared with an intent to harm someone, as is cropping an image in a way that makes the subject of the image look bad. 

Then, invite students to discuss the following questions using the Think-Pair-Share strategy. 

  1. What might lead some people to believe misinformation, disinformation and/or mal-information?
  2. What might lead some people to create and share disinformation and mal-information?
  3. What examples of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information have you seen or heard about? 
  4. How does social media contribute to information disorder? 
  5. What impact can these types of information disorder have on individuals? On society? 

After inviting students to share their responses in a short class discussion, you might wish to share the information disorder venn diagram created by researchers Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakshan on slide 8 of the PowerPoint Confronting Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information

Then, if desired, share the following information about what drives people to believe information they encounter with students.

Professor David Rand, who has done research on the psychology of misinformation, has found that: 1  

  • People are more likely to believe any type of information if:
    • They hear it repeatedly (even if it initially seems far-fetched)
    • It aligns with their beliefs and knowledge (this can include fears)
    • It is from a trusted and/or influential source, including politicians. 
  • People are more likely to believe false information if:
    • They do not think critically
    • They are distracted when they consume it
    • Their emotions are triggered by what they consume
    • They have a lack of digital and media literacy.

Invite students to share in a pair what they find surprising, interesting and/or troubling about Rand’s research findings.

Next, explain to students that misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are especially harmful because they can influence someone’s thinking long after they have been exposed to them, which makes them difficult to debunk. This is particularly true of anything that is believed at an emotional rather than rational level.  

One of the best ways to protect people from misinformation, disinformation and mal-information is to help them not fall for them in the first place. This can be done by helping people understand how they are spread as this helps people become ‘inoculated’ to their effects, and by developing their media literacy and critical thinking skills.

Invite students to participate in a Gallery Walk contained on slides 11-19 of the PowerPoint Confronting Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information, which highlights some of the ways in which misinformation, disinformation and mal-information are spread, including intentional techniques that are used to deceive people. 

As students are circulating, ask them to reflect on the following questions: 

  1. What is this practice/technique? 
  2. What are its potential impacts on those who consume content based on this practice/technique? 
  3. What might motivate someone to use this practice/technique? 
  4. How can the use of this practice/technique lead to the spread of false information?


Then, lead a short class discussion using the following questions:

  1. Which practices did you find the most surprising/troubling?
  2. What do you think can be done to counter the impact of these practices/techniques?

Next, explain to students that while it is not always easy to detect what information is true or free from manipulation from that which is not, there are ways to minimise the likelihood of believing in and spreading misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. 

Divide students into small groups, distribute the handout Responding to Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-information and share the following instructions: 

  1. In your groups, cut the tips up along the dotted lines. 
  2. Group them under two/three headings of your choice.
  3. Decide on which three you think are the most important and why.
  4. Discuss if there is any advice that you would add.

If students are stuck, you might suggest the headings of reflection and action.

If there is time, lead a short class discussion inviting students to share their headings, if they created their own, any advice that they added, and/or anything that struck them as they were reading and organising the tips.

Finally, invite students to choose one of the tips that they are going to adopt and ask them to share it in a Wraparound. 

Extension Activities

Share the following prompt and questions with students: 

‘Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect’

Jonathan Swift, eighteenth-century writer

  1. What does this quotation suggest about how falsehood spreads in comparison to the truth?
    • What does it suggest about the long-term impact of this? 
  2. How far do you agree with the statement? Explain your view.
  3. What evidence do you see in the world around you (including social media/the Internet) that supports or undermines this statement?
  4. How, if at all, has what you have covered in this shaped your perspective?

Lead a short class discussion, inviting students to share their responses.

Share some or all of the following content with students to help them reflect on what they can do to challenge and avoid spreading disinformation: 

To help students understand how photos and videos can be manipulated, share one or more of the following, asking them to take notes on the reasons why they should be sceptical about the video/images they encounter: 

Share some or all of the terms from the glossary Information Disorder: The Essential Glossary with students to introduce them to important terminology that can help them understand and discuss the world of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. Invite them to consider why, as Claire Wardle states in the glossary, ‘[d]efinitions and terminology matter’, before inviting them to share how the glossary terms connect to, extend and/or challenge their knowledge of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. 

To help students process the terms, you might ask them to create posters featuring terms of their choice that can be displayed in the classroom or around the school to inform students about the dangers of information disorder. You might also invite them to add ideas on how to respond to misinformation, disinformation and mal-information from the lesson content. 

Review the selected timeline of ‘information disorder’ through the ages contained in A Short Guide to the History of ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation, and select some examples that cover the broad breadth of the timeline to share with students, inviting them to reflect on how the spreading of false information has changed throughout history.

Teach students content from our lesson Addressing Antisemitism Online from our unit Discussing Contemporary Antisemitism in the Classroom. This two-part lesson is a means of helping students to develop as responsible and critical Internet users, who understand how content shared online, such as memes, can be used to spread hateful messages and manipulate those who encounter it. In the first part of the lesson, students reflect on how they consume and share information, and on the power of the Internet meme. Then, in the second part of the lesson, students look at specific examples of antisemitic memes, reflecting on the messages they send and the feelings they seek to provoke in the viewer/reader.

Watch the Netflix documentary The Great Hack with students. As they are watching, pause the film, inviting them to discuss what they have seen and then take notes. You might also invite them to use the Connect, Extend, Challenge thinking strategy. Then, invite students to write an article or speech or create a poster about what they have learnt. You might also ask students to work in groups and create presentations that they will then present to the class. 

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