In France, school lessons ask: Which Twitter post should you trust?

France is coordinating one of the world's largest national media and Internet literacy efforts to teach students how to spot junk information online, including on sites like Twitter. PHOTO: AFP

VAULX-EN-VELIN, FRANCE (NYTIMES) - 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 a headline-grabbing incident in France when 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 a 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 educational professionals receive government training on the subject every year. In some places, 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$9.3 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."

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 United States 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 like Facebook and Google. EU officials this month called on countries in the bloc to expand education programmes as part of a push against misinformation and election interference.

France's centralised strategy is "quite unique" and "absolutely noteworthy," said Professor Renee Hobbs, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who specialises in media literacy.

Ms Laffont, a journalist for Agence France-Presse in Lyon, became involved in the effort after she co-founded an organisation called Entre Les Lignes, or Between The Lines, in 2010. The group taught students about journalism, but evolved to include social media and Internet misinformation.

The government points to Ms Laffont's programme as a model and has provided an annual injection of tens of thousands of euros since 2017 to help it grow. Now 155 journalists volunteer, including many from Le Monde, France's leading newspaper, and the group held about 500 workshops with students this year.

Ms Laffont keeps lessons simple. She incorporates Twitter and YouTube, and shares links to websites that students can use as references to check facts.

She also explains the basics of how journalists gather and confirm facts, hoping that may help reverse some students' mistrust of the media, as well as help them develop a more critical eye for what they see online.

"We realised that we had to go back to the fundamentals before even mentioning fake news and conspiracy theories: What's news, who makes it, how do you check the sources," Ms Laffont said.

There is little research to gauge whether these lessons work. Technology trends move quickly, and courses can quickly become outdated. Even basic infrastructure can be a problem: Before the class at the Henri Barbusse middle school, teachers struggled to get the Internet access working.

Mr Guillaume Chaslot, a French engineer who helped develop YouTube's recommendation algorithm, said the efforts were worthwhile but wondered how effective they would be against Facebook and Google. Their algorithms put a priority on engagement, he said, meaning false and sensationalistic content from questionable sources can spread quickly.

"I don't think you solve the problem with these trainings," Mr Chaslot said. "The power is the platforms. It's a mismatch."

But educators said the workshops helped people realise they must take responsibility for their online behaviour, particularly in lower-income areas where young people are more vulnerable.

At a recent Internet literacy workshop outside Paris, students were asked to write their own false news article. One participant paused as he finished a post that exaggerated police brutality, realising many of his friends would believe it.

"That's so scary," said the student, Mr Faycal Ben Abdallah, 20.

"Many young adults don't look for news today - they just come across it," said Mr Baptiste Larroudé-Tasei, a community worker at Groupe SOS in Paris who specialises in prevention of radicalisation.

"If all of a sudden they are interested in something, they feel a need to learn more about it without always knowing how to do it properly."

At the Henri Barbusse class, most of the 24 students came from housing blocks in Vaulx-en-Velin, a predominantly low-income neighbourhood with a large immigrant population. On that Wednesday, Ms Laffont began by asking the teenagers if they used Facebook. No hands went up.

"Facebook is for old people," one student shouted, followed by laughter. They said they favoured Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. (Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp.)

Some students said that the class was helpful, but that they weren't sure how they would apply the new information.

Yacine Saidi, 14, who spends most of his Internet time on YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, said the class should be longer. "I'm not sure how useful it can be when I'm back home on my phone," he said.

A group of girls including Samia said they mainly got their news from Snapchat and YouTube.

"We're not aware enough of how journalists work, how fake news is created or why such or such thing lands in our social media feeds," Samia said. "School can be the place where we become more aware of all this."

Then the lunch bell sounded, and the two-hour class drew to an end.

Ms Laffont was energised by the teenagers' engagement and interest.

"It's your role to sort things out online," she told them. "Be attentive to all the subtleties we've seen today."

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