In recent months, I have given at least half a dozen talks about the dangers of “fake news” and how best to distinguish misinformation from factual news. Inevitably, during the question and answer sessions that follow these talks, I’ll be asked what the public can do to separate the facts from the avalanche of misleading information that blankets our political campaigns.
I often answer with the mantra that all of us should read broadly, read deeply, and read skeptically. What that means in practical terms is that if you read an editorial in The Inquirer or the Washington Post, applauding Republican Rep. Justin Amash’s statement that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report made it clear that President Trump had engaged in acts that meet “all the elements of obstruction of justice,” then it’s also important to read a piece from the more conservative Wall Street Journal taking the opposite point of view. In that way, readers have the benefit of absorbing the full spectrum of opinion and can form their own, informed conclusions.
It is equally important, I believe, to take the time to investigate improbable stories or social media posts from websites like Facebook and Twitter by using a respected fact-checking site like FactCheck.org or Snopes.com, which examines in depth dubious news stories, political charges and countercharges, and many other issues.
Last but definitely not least, I always emphasize the importance of education — education at home and education in our schools — beginning in elementary school. We need a commitment to education that instills in our youngest generation the virtues and obligations of being a citizen in a democracy, the importance of taking an active interest in public affairs and participating in debate over issues of public importance.
For me, this began in fifth grade in October 1957 with the distribution of My Weekly Reader in Miss Suzanne Loder’s class at Brookline Elementary School in Haverford Township. The edition that I recall most vividly, emblazoned with blue headlines, heralded the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union and prompted a spirited and concerned class discussion about whether Russia was eclipsing the U.S. in science and technology. Why, I asked in many of my talks this year, couldn’t we revive a My Weekly Reader-type news digest online and use it as a catalyst for having students dissect and detect misinformation.
So I was surprised and inspired last week to read about a national initiative in Finland — now in its third year — to focus sharply on how to detect the false information that has permeated political campaigns here in the United States and in Europe. Finland’s efforts, recounted in an excellent piece produced by CNN, began with the nation’s president, Sauli Niinistö, declaring in 2015 that it was the duty of all Finns to combat the rising tide of misinformation. Finland, which shares 832 miles of its border with Russia, has for decades had a wary yet compatible relationship with Russia, but the Finns are acutely aware of allegations that Russian troll operations have influenced elections throughout Europe and the U.S.
A year after President Niinistö's call to action, CNN reported, Finland revamped its critical thinking curriculum in its public schools to show students how to detect false information. Given the Finn’s affinity for reading — Finland’s 5.5 million people borrow almost 68 million books a year from their libraries — the nation clearly has a population that would be receptive to courses that help debunk “fake news” and destructive propaganda. Taken together, the revised curriculum combines critical thinking, working with fact-checking organizations and classes that emphasize voter literacy.
There’s also abundant evidence that Finland’s approach is having a positive effect: Other nations throughout the European Union and as far flung as Singapore have visited Finland to observe firsthand how their educational program is working. In my opinion, it’s an opportune time for American educators to travel to Finland and import the best of the program to the United States, where those skills are desperately needed.