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Raising informed media consumers starts at school

Simply teaching media literacy is not enough in today’s online environment. Africa Check has created fact-checking resources for teachers that directly target harmful information.

The spread of false information causes real harm. In the early 2000s, rumours that the polio vaccine caused infertility led to an increase in polio cases in Nigeria. Many people are still suffering the consequences. 

Two decades later, the Covid pandemic brought its share of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, misleading imagery and fake cures in what the World Health Organization called an “infodemic” – an overabundance of information, both online and offline, that made it difficult for people to distinguish true from false. 

In today’s digital environment all it takes is an internet connection and the click of a button to spread disinformation in seconds. A few more clicks by people on the receiving end and it spreads around the world, as evidenced by the thousands of Covid-related claims that have been debunked by fact-checking organisations worldwide. 

Disinformation is false information that is deliberately designed and shared to cause harm. It often becomes misinformation, when the people sharing it don’t realise that it is false. 

As fact-checkers, we see how disinformation and misinformation add fuel to the fire in times of uncertainty or unrest. South Africa is no exception. During outbreaks of xenophobic violence and the 2021 unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that followed the imprisonment of former South African president Jacob Zuma, we saw how images and videos from years ago or even other countries were shared in the wrong context, creating unnecessary fear and panic in already volatile situations. 

To limit these consequences, Africa Check debunks false information and publishes fact-checks to give the public access to accurate information. However, it’s impossible for us to verify all potentially false information, which is why we’ve been offering fact-checking training since 2015. We also run media literacy campaigns to equip the public with the skills they need to verify information for themselves. 

Honing in on South African high schools needs

Two years ago, we started our first project aimed at teaching fact-checking skills not only to journalism, communication and media studies students, but also to high school learners, with the ultimate goal of creating a young generation of responsible media consumers in South Africa. 

Many young people already have access to the internet and mobile devices, and therefore need skills to critically assess if information should be believed and shared. However, a 2020 study that looked at media literacy themes in public school curricula in seven sub-Saharan countries found that, apart from an online safety programme launched in Western Cape province schools that year, there was little specific focus on misinformation in South African curricula.

We began our project in September 2021 with an assessment of media literacy and fact-checking training needs in South African schools and universities, conducted by Prof Herman Wasserman and Dr Dani Madrid-Morales. It found that there was no nationwide, structured and uniform teaching of media literacy in South African high schools and confirmed that there is very little focus on how to fact-check and verify information. 

Their research made it clear that simply teaching learners media literacy – which typically includes critical reading of media texts, understanding the relationship between media and audiences, and knowing how the media production process works – is not enough in today’s online environment. Similar to the 2020 study, the findings suggest that misinformation literacy, “which can be seen as a way of acquiring the critical and technical skills needed by media users to counter the spread of misinformation online”, should be included in media literacy taught in schools. 

Based on these findings and input from several education experts, Africa Check has created fact-checking resources and training materials that high school educators can use in the classroom to teach misinformation literacy. 

We also ran a series of online train-the-trainer programmes for high school educators. This gave them the knowledge to equip learners with the critical thinking skills they need to recognise and stop the spread of misinformation and its harmful effects.

During August 2023, Africa Check will host a series of online discussions with education stakeholders, including representatives from provincial departments of education, organisations working in the education space, and interested high school principals and department heads. We will showcase our fact-checking resources and hope to find ways to make them available to as many educators as possible. Register here if you’d like to attend.

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