2.5 Finding one’s way in the insidious territory of fake news

A crucial aspect of Global Citizenship Education (GCE) is the development of critical skills when dealing with information in general, and more specifically current news, on the Internet. In order to be a global citizen highly aware of what is happening both at local and global levels, it is important to know how to decode the immense array of information and news that surrounds us. This challenge is addressed by Unit 5 entitled Hunting Fake News through Critical Reading.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but undoubtedly, online communication and social media allow the creation and spread of false news at a much higher rate and speed. In addition, Artificial Intelligence tools, such as ChatGPT, enable almost anybody to create a credible news item on almost any topic. Often, these fake news stories are created with the intention to manipulate public opinion for instrumental reasons ranging from the creation or destruction of celebrities to political purposes.

Swamps of false information

A recent example of the power of fake news regards the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, we have witnessed news concerning the fact that there was no increase in deaths due to the virus, that the virus causes male infertility, or that G5 networks were being used to spread the virus. Clearly, we now know that all these alarming stories are false. So what defence tools do we have in order to protect ourselves from being manipulated by this potentially false mass of information?

In this global territory full of swamps of false information and dead-end stories, we need a compass and a clear map to distinguish the former from the latter and move ahead. Unit 5 of the GCMC toolkit offers some key tools to help students navigate the world of information. By engaging with the activities, we hope your pupils will develop orientation skills they can use in their life outside the classroom to critically read news and understand how the stories are constructed and why.

The authors of Teaching Critical Reading and Writing in the Era of Fake News (Carillo and Horning, 2021) report that both high school and university students show weak reading skills when dealing with texts (traditional and internet-based) which require critical understanding. As educators, we can help our students develop those skills on a variety of texts and contexts. Internet is clearly the terrain in which our compass and map are most important. Our role is to help them use an array of critical instruments, but we cannot offer a fixed itinerary as the potential pitfalls are extremely varied and may change with context. We can, however, encourage them to ask a numbers of questions about the news items they encounter. As you will find in Activity 2 of the module, some of these questions are:

Innovation in GCMC

Throughout Unit 5 you will find stimulating hands-on activities that will help develop critical thinking in your students as recipients of fake news. But some of the activities are also designed to take the students backstage and show them how easily fake news can be created and spread. Although some exercises are designed to be light-hearted and fun, such as creating your own “[Fake] Breaking News” banner, the skills developed are crucial. In addition, the learning is not useful only to the individual student: the activities aim also at developing a sense of social responsibility. For example, the learners are asked to share their new understanding (their compass and map) with the school and beyond, especially through the creation of infographics about fake news and guidelines to navigate the world of information.

The most innovative aspect of this unit and of the GCMC project as a whole, is that it considers the link between global citizenship and plurilingual education. After all, not only does fake information circulate in all languages, but also those who lack a plurilingual repertoire have more limited tools to defend themselves from it. There is therefore a question of global justice in our wish to combine one of the key topics of global citizenship (identifying and deconstructing fake news) with plurilingual education.

Using all our languages

The Council of Europe offers very clear guidelines on this matter. First of all, it encourages teachers of any discipline to develop their learners’ plurilingual repertoire, which is defined as “resources which individual learners have acquired in all the languages they know or have learned, and which also relate to the cultures associated with those languages (languages of schooling, regional/minority and migration languages, modern or classical languages).” (Council of Europe 2016:20).

As the students learn to discuss fake news and deconstruct them, it is important to encourage them to activate all the languages they know, regardless of their level of proficiency. This approach gives value to plurilingualism and offers add-ons to the compass and map, thus allowing them to check sources in other languages.

Secondly, one of the key publications of the Council of Europe, The Companion Volume of the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR), stresses that encouraging students to use their plurilingual repertoire in class facilitates language learning. This happens primarily when the teacher adopts an action-oriented approach which “implies purposeful, collaborative tasks in the classroom, the primary focus of which is not language” (Council of Europe 2020: 30).

GCE is an ideal context in which as teachers we can help students develop their critical skills while also boosting their plurilingual repertoires. In fact, we can help them become aware that all their languages are additional aids to help them orient themselves in the insidious territory of fake information.