France teaching kids to spot fake news

Ms Sandra Laffont, a journalist who helps train teenagers to recognise online misinformation, leading a workshop at College Henri Barbusse in Vaulx-en-Velin, France, last month.
Ms Sandra Laffont, a journalist who helps train teenagers to recognise online misinformation, leading a workshop at College Henri Barbusse in Vaulx-en-Velin, France, last month.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Govt doubles funding for lessons, to include elective course in national curriculum

VAULX-EN-VELIN (France) • A group of teenagers recently swarmed into a room at College Henri Barbusse near Lyon, France, for a class typically dedicated to learning Spanish. But on that Wednesday, an unusual lesson awaited them.

Five posts from Twitter were up on the board. The assignment: Decipher whether they were trustworthy or suspect.

The ninth-graders quickly focused on a post by far-right politician Marine Le Pen related to an incident in France where a teenager had threatened a teacher.

One student said Ms Le Pen's post could be trusted because her account had been verified by Twitter.

But Samia Houbiri, 15, piped up that Ms Le Pen simply wanted attention. "She picks a topic, she exaggerates things, and then people will say, 'She's right, I should vote for her,'" Samia said.

At the front of the class, Ms Sandra Laffont, a journalist teaching the workshop, nodded and said: "Politicians may sometimes exaggerate reality because their goal is to convince people that their ideas are the right ones."

The class was part of a novel experiment by the government to work with journalists and educators to combat the spread of online misinformation.

France is coordinating one of the world's largest national media and Internet literacy efforts to teach students, starting as early as in middle school, how to spot junk information online.

Since 2015, the French government has increased funding for courses about the downsides of the online world. About 30,000 teachers and other education professionals receive government training on the subject every year.

In some places, the local authorities require young adults to complete an Internet literacy course to receive welfare benefits, such as a monthly stipend.

The French culture ministry has doubled its annual budget for the courses to €6 million (S$9.4 million), and the education ministry is adding an elective high school course on the Internet and the media to the national curriculum, making it available to thousands of students. Some educators are calling for the courses to be mandatory, taught alongside history and maths.

"The younger you start, the better," said Mr Serge Barbet, who heads Clemi, the main programme within the education ministry coordinating the effort. "That's why we've been pushing for more media education in recent years. It's become a vital need and a threat."

AN URGENT NEED

The younger you start, the better. That's why we've been pushing for more media education in recent years. It's become a vital need and a threat.

MR SERGE BARBET, who heads Clemi, the main programme within the education ministry coordinating the effort, on the need for Internet and media literacy.

France saw the need for expanded media and Internet literacy before many countries. In 2015, the deadly attack on the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo exposed a deep distrust of the media and vulnerability to conspiracy theories online.

The efforts have taken on new urgency after the most recent US and French presidential elections were targeted by Russian misinformation campaigns, and after the spread of conspiracy theories in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice.

Violent protests across France over income inequality in recent weeks have also been organised through Facebook and other online platforms, where misleading posts or distorted videos were "liked" and shared thousands of times.

Outside France, Internet literacy programmes are also growing, but have largely been left to groups, such as The News Literacy Project in the US, that are funded by foundations and companies such as Facebook and Google.

European Union officials this month called on countries in the bloc to expand education programmes as part of a push against misinformation and election interference.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2018, with the headline 'France teaching kids to spot fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe