WHILE some fake news is apparent, it’s important to understand that the distinction between truth and fiction can often be blurred, especially to young minds.
It is also not obvious to everyone, especially youth, that each individual bears a responsibility when creating and sharing content.
In school, are teachers devoting time to counsel and advise students on topics such as fake news, which have been part and parcel of our daily lives for almost half a decade now?
Do parents take the time to discuss such issues with their children?
The term fake news was born, after all, thanks to the activity of a group of young people.
According to a BBC report, it was in 2016 when a Buzzfeed media editor noticed a string of made-up stories and websites that originated from the small Eastern European town of Veles, Macedonia.
Because one could make money from Facebook advertising, these youth wanted their (tall) tales to travel widely on social media.
This was during the US presidential election and so there were headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”.
The BBC report went on to say how these reports were completely false, and thus the advent of “fake news”.
It would seem imperative that we educate our youth to understand the importance of telling, sharing and seeking the truth online and that freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to lie or spread lies.
With the Internet, traditional forms of gatekeeping no longer exist, and it is important for young people, most of whom are active online, to understand they have a certain power or influence on social media. And with great power comes great responsibility.
No lesson in school
While most schoolgoing children are aware of fake news, almost all of those interviewed for this story say the topic has never been broached in school.
This informal consensus is shared by teachers (both primary and secondary) who say they have never taught their students, either formally or informally, online etiquette or how to discern what is true on the Internet.
Shaquil John, 15, from Klang, Selangor, knows what fake news is.
“It is false information that has been spread through different social media by people to gain attention or mislead people, ” he says, but admits that he and his friends have sometimes unintentionally shared such news because they didn’t realise it was fake.
“None of my teachers have talked about fake news or how to fact-check information.”
Alicia Tan, 17, from Subang Jaya, Selangor, says her teachers have never taught her and her classmates how to identify fake news.
“No advice was ever given, ” she says. “Sometimes we do forward or share information that we are not sure about. This happens all the time. We shared the content because it could be true.”
Justin Leong, 14, from Petaling Jaya, Selangor, can’t recall if his teachers have taught him about fake news. “Not that I can remember, ” he says.
However, Justin, whose mother is a journalist, adds: “Spreading fake news can lead to panic among people. It may even result in injury depending on the news. We need to stop the spread of fake news by double checking the article online before sending them to others.”
Lata Alisha Isitor, 14, also from Petaling Jaya, is one of the few students who say that her teachers have spoken about fake news in class and how to avoid being an accessory to spreading lies.
“We can look at what links and sources are used, check what news outlet published the news, or we can ask someone if they have heard the same news, ” Lata says. “my classmates and I try not to spread information that we are not sure about.”
One primary schoolteacher from Bangi, Kuala Lumpur, says that even the parents of her Year 1,2 and 3 students are prone to sharing false information on their class WhatsApp chat group.
“Especially during the MCO, there were many instances when parents would share ‘text yang pelik pelik’ about topics like non-halal food or Covid-19. Often, I had to call them out and let them know it was fake and not right for them to be sharing.”
Time for change
Educationist Hanif Othman Merican concedes that there hasn’t been any formal programme that deals with such media issues at his school.
“In terms of setting aside a coordinated slot in our curriculum for fake news, no, ” says the CEO of Sri Kuala Lumpur, a private school in Subang Jaya.
“There is, however, an informal or unscheduled approach, ” he says, explaining that the school’s past and present principals have discussed matters such as fake news during assembly.
“We’ve also had circulars going out to parents highlighting our Internet policy, and cautioning them to be aware of certain things.”
Hanif says the current media climate and proliferation of fake news may be a wake-up call for the education field.
Having been in the education field for a long while now, Hanif noticed a couple of trends that are worrying.
“My experience with Sri KL has shown me that there can be information overload. We are very keen on debating here at this school, and sometimes the kids are given 10 minutes to prepare for a topic. But they get flooded out by the Internet.
“And there’s an anxiety that has developed among students when they are swamped with so much information. One little search can lead you down so many rabbit holes!”
Another issue that irks him is that of silo mentalities.
“If we’re going to have something on media and societal studies 101, starting in Year 7 for instance, it will need to address the silo issue, ” he suggests.
He adds: “I myself have been guilty of the forwarding culture. Because it resonates with one’s own prejudices, you automatically push such news items forward.
“This kind of silo mentality developed by algorithms knowing what your prejudices are is very dangerous.
“You develop an idea of the world that is even less true than it was before, ” Hanif opines, adding that the movement control order period has afforded him the time and opportunity to talk about these matters with his children, aged between 15 and 22 years.
“My children are quite media- savvy and fairly clued in. But even they have fallen for news items that pop up on their feeds, and quite often these things are utter fabrication.
“So the average response is a little bit worrying, as people do tend to swallow everything that’s served up, ” he says.
Hanif reminisces about growing up in a time when everyone would watch the same TV show at the same time every night.
“There was no Netflix. No Astro. TV3 was the new thing on the scene and everybody watched Dallas unfolding at the same time. Society was more cohesive in many ways, because the message – whatever it was – was a shared experience.
“These days, we all find ourselves in our own little Netflix or FB silos, whether it is a language silo or thematic silo.
“We also don’t watch programmes with our kids anymore. This whole new media experience is a troubling one for me as a family man and an educator, ” he laments.
So, are there solutions?
“I am quite happy to take a more proactive approach to how we caution and guide the students on the Internet. However, the nature of the truth can be a very slippery eel, ” says Hanif.
“At Sri KL we are keen to transmit value-based ideas to our teachers. This is what we harp on at our induction meetings. There’s an ethos about the school which is to be open, to be considerate, compassionate and inclusive. I think this is important.
“Societal values may change over time but human character or what we perceive to be ‘good character’ is largely consistent with what it was 2,000 years ago. We take a long view, which is to promote honesty, courage, self sacrifice and compassion.”
Hanif says that one way to avoid the information minefield is to focus on character.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the death penalty, for example, or a woman’s right to abortion, or issues like polygamy – these are all highly contentious subjects that don’t go away easily because society’s views of those things change over time.
“If you try and say it’s a fundamental truth, you run into a lot of trouble.
“So what we try to do with the teachers and students is to promote an ethos of character – to do the right thing.
“To have integrity. Do that thing which you should do even when nobody is looking.”