Unmask that Author! Help Your Teen Resist Manipulation by Media

Girl looking at tablet

by Samurai Mom, a Library Media Specialist

Information has Changed

In this era of instant information, we all receive a constant barrage of text, images and videos delivered through our computers, phones, devices, TV and radio.

Pin for Article 9 Ways to Help your Teen Resist Manipulation by MediaYou know that all messages are not created equal. How many times in the past year have you read something online that just sounded totally unrealistic?

All the time, right? You couldn’t possibly keep track of them because the strange, improbable, slick or downright insidious media messages follow us everywhere we go.

Information that reaches us used to be vetted by researchers, editors and by authors themselves with reputations to protect. I call them the gatekeepers.

The rise of the internet and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram has created a fundamental change in the nature of information. Basically, more info and fewer gatekeepers.

Information itself has become gooey – shifting, sliding, able to transform itself minute-by-minute and hard to pin down. Reliable information and pure crap float side-by-side on the internet in millions of search results.

To be clear, I’m not just talking about information from well-established outlets like Time or CNN – our media world includes everything that is published digitally: articles, blogs, tweets, forums, listservs, videos, social media messages, etc.

Trying to gauge the accuracy and bias of a message you receive online can be – to use a well-worn cliche – a bit like nailing jello to a wall.  

Because there are often no gatekeepers between our kids and information, it can leave them wide open to misinformation (wrong, often unintentionally) or disinformation (wrong on purpose, to achieve an objective).  

The stakes rise when teens make decisions based on this information. And your kid is making dozens of decisions every day based on messages that they receive through dubious channels. Not only may they act on wrong information, but without examining sources it’s easy to unconsciously absorb a point of view. 

Lack of understanding about bias in media messages is a widespread problem. Stanford University found that kids and teens are very likely to be misled on the internet without repeated instruction. In fact, the Stanford study showed that the majority of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between an actual online news story and a thinly disguised advertisement.

Here’s the bottom line: how do we teach teens to be their own gatekeepers for information?

When the line between real, fake and skewed information is so blurred, the best defense is to develop the outlook of a skeptic

To figure out what teens can believe, it often comes down to these questions about the author or publishing organization:

    • Who is the author and why is the information being shared?
    • What is the author’s bias?
    • How credible is the author?
    • How accurate is the information when compared with a trusted source?
    • Does the information make sense to you?
    • Does the author provide sources?
    • How does media manipulation happen?
Teaching Kids to Recognize Author or Publisher Bias in School: Researching Information Sources in the Library

Parents can build on lessons about media bias commonly taught in school like this one below. Come look over my shoulder as I teach this class and see for yourself how powerful it can be when kids learn how to be their own gatekeepers…

Twenty-two seventh graders silently read the text I’ve displayed on the Smartboard. The silence grows longer as they continue to examine the web page of two short paragraphs. One girl looks at the ceiling, bites the side of her thumb, then frowns at the text. She’s joined by others who look at me, then back at the screen, brows furrowing. Something is wrong here, they say. ​

The focus of their unease is a brief biography about Mao Zedong, one of the most powerful leaders in China’s modern history. Students had been learning some background of Mao’s leadership in their social studies classes.  They had read about the famines caused by his programs, the propaganda campaigns Mao used to control the masses of China and the ruthless methods he used to eliminate opposition to his policies.  Yet, on this website, only the briefest information is offered about Mao’s long, controversial life, and it’s described in reverent language.

Their burning question is this: Why is so much important information left out of this webpage?

This lesson is part of a sequence that I teach to help students recognize bias. We had already practiced identifying bias by word choice and they could readily pick out the “value words” in the web page in which the author gives away a point of view. The students offer words from the text like, “revered” “great father” “illustrious leader”.

We moved on to explore higher-level thinking strategies that a reader uses to detect bias. Motivation for publishing can be very revealing of an author’s point of view. Why has this author shared this information with the world?

We decoded the URL, also known as the uniform website locator or the website address, together. From previous lessons, students were familiar with the concept of a web domain such as .edu, .gov etc. After deconstructing this URL, they discover an unfamiliar domain code: .cn  It gradually dawns that this website was published in China.

What remains to this puzzle is to research the publisher and piece together why this organization had posted this surprisingly bare bones entry about Mao.

Kids lean closer to their screens as we continue to unveil the organization. It’s during our investigation into the ‘About us’ area of the page that several hands shoot up. They had found the name of the publisher, they thought.  I kept my expression neutral as students read the organization name aloud: People’s Daily Online. Since their fledgling knowledge of China didn’t yet allow them to detect the possibility of the Chinese government at work behind this media giant, we continued our inquiry. At last, there it is at the top of our search results: “The People’s Daily Online is sponsored and controlled by Central Committee of the Communist Party of China”.

We return to the original question:  why had they shared this article with the world?

The energy in the room rises as students realize this biography of Mao is the carefully constructed work of the Communist Party of China whose sole aim is to preserve an image of Mao as a great leader. The brevity of the article highlights another way alert readers can detect bias: omission of information.

Our investigation into the authorship of the web page highlights one very important fact: we can’t depend blindly on an official-looking source to provide us with reliable information.

Helping Kids Develop a Skeptical Lens

Helping kids develop a skeptical stance at the middle level works best when these information literacy skills are embedded in social studies, science and language arts. As students progress through middle school and high school, the lessons become more sophisticated.

My seventh graders were applying a source evaluation framework called C.A.R.S that they can apply to any online information source. The focus, as in this lesson comparing bias in different websites about Mao Zedong, is always squarely on the author. Who’s behind this information and why have they shared this information with the world?  We question the author’s expertise (or publishing organization), use multiple strategies to unveil bias, and scrutinize the accuracy of the facts compared with other, trusted sources.

What Can I do as a Parent to Help my Kid Practice these Skills “In the Wild”?
9 Tips to Teach Kids to Analyze Media Bias at Home

School lessons are a great launchpad for building the skills of a skeptic, but teens become better at this critical thinking with repeated, real-world practice at home.

As your child’s first – and most important – teacher, there is a lot you can do to help your child develop their analytical skills to sort solid information from the suspect. In fact, your daily barrage of media messages presents you with many chances to model critical thinking and start conversations about how you evaluate the accuracy of information.

Here are 9 simple tips to get started:

1. Authorship is King (or Queen) – Determining who wrote or produced an article, a post, a video, a meme, a tweet, etc. is the single most important thing you can do to question the reliability of the information. The more far-fetched or shocking a message is, the more scrutiny the author gets.

2. Put the author’s name in quotes and search Google. No author listed? Take a close look at the publisher like we did with the People’s Daily Online source.

3. Check social media accounts for the author’s name. You can tell a lot about authors from the choice of messages that they post to an account.

4. Let your child show you what he or she knows about web searching; start the conversation about what makes you believe a source.

5. Determine if the information has been created by an expert. Look for credentials; published books on the subject or awards given.

6. Look for the author’s or organization’s bias – why has this information been shared with the world? Here are some common reasons: for profit, to influence/persuade, to inform, to entertain, etc.

7. Confirm the accuracy of the information with another, trusted source.

8. Check the currency of the information – some topics, such as health, technology or current events should be explored and confirmed with current sources.Word cloud

Next Steps

9. An ongoing and open conversation (such as at the dinner table or in the car) about media, technology and your use of information will help your student continue to develop their skeptical stance. Start a casual conversation about how you received a story through a news feed that sounded implausible.

As kids grow more independent, often the best way to raise their awareness is modeling an open-ended, I’m-wondering-at-the-world approach.  If they’re receptive, you can think out loud, using starters like these:

“I got this text today that seemed weird. I almost clicked on it, but then…”

Or

“I read on Facebook that _________ was going to _______, and it just didn’t sound right. I’m going to research that to see if it’s real.”

Information is transient (think jello) in our online world and accepting information at face value – without questioning the credibility or motive behind it – can have real consequences. Help your teen develop skepticism in questioning messages regardless of the source. Over time, this practice will help kids become more critical consumers and producers of information.

See our related articles:

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