<span class='p-name'>Truth, lies, & learning in an online disinformation war</span>

Truth, lies, & learning in an online disinformation war

According to existing laws of war and international human rights accords, children and schools (i.e., learning environments) are supposed to be protected when in warzones. In 1949, The Geneva Convention established rules that occupying powers must “facilitate the proper working of [educational facilities]” and even provide education for children who are displaced because of war. In 2015, more than 50 countries endorsed the international Safe Schools Declaration which expressed political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict. The doctrines, and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, helped establish the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict. 

Yet, in an increasingly networked, global society, conflict can reach our browsers, learning environments, and in turn our students far more quickly than previously conceived. This perspective may be a bit naive as we view the world in terms of a digital dualism in which the online space is different and separate from our real-world, or traditional spaces. I believe the barriers between the online and offline worlds are less distinct than we often frame them. Furthermore, as schools and classrooms increasingly move to online and hybrid spaces, we must consider how we protect students and educators when learning environments are just a click away.

Critical online literacy practices

Researchers and educators have been studying how we adapt learning environments, pedagogy, and literacy practices to these new contexts as the Internet began to impact our lives. A 21st century educational system must educate all students in the effective and authentic use of the technologies that permeate society to prepare them for the future. In the past, our educational system emphasized the use of traditional tools such as textbooks, chalkboards, overhead projectors, ring binders, and composition books. Now however, our culture has embraced vastly new and dynamically changing media in everyday life.  

Part of this preparation for our futures includes understanding the computational concepts upon which countless digital applications run so that people can no longer just offers children the opportunity to no longer simply “read” digital/traditional media but to become more discerning end users. Perhaps they can potentially become innovative “writers” of new media themselves. As an example of this, in my dissertation focused on critical evaluation of online information as I studied how adolescents think critically about (and create) digital texts. Students were fooled by fake information, and then created fake websites using lessons learned from the fake information found online. 

A decade after my dissertation, I’m struck by how naive our understanding of the online space in terms of literacy practices. Critical evaluation of online information previously was an academic exercise in which we focused on whether or not students were fooled by a website about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. It now appears that not only are individuals ill equipped to critically evaluate online texts, they are also being actively targeted with measures to fool them. 

An online informational war

I believe that we’re currently in an large-scale, online informational war. This online informational war in the digital age has many permutations, but one of these is very relevant to this current discussion about critical evaluation in online spaces. This war is marked by a current context of sources of online content are actively pumping out information with varying shades of truth and sincerity. Along with the original source that may be mostly true, there will be dozens (or more) additional sources with information more/less true. 

This information is also presented with varying perspectives or ideological stances to further obfuscate and confuse readers. Ultimately a mix of real, hoax, and more-reliable/less reliable sites compete for your attention. Attention is gobbled up as a stream of information and media compete for your attention. We get a steady stream of porridge that is not too hot…not too cold…it is just right. The end result is that we find ourselves in echo chambers or “filter bubbles” that ensure we get more of what we like. 

DDoS-ing online readers

In computing, a denial-of-service attack (DoS attack) is a cyber-attack in which a perpetrator seeks to make a machine or network resource unavailable to users by temporarily or indefinitely disrupting services of a host connected to the Internet. A DoS attack is typically accomplished by flooding the targeted resource with superfluous requests in an attempt to overload systems and prevent some or all legitimate requests from being fulfilled.

A distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack) steps this by having the attack originate from many different sources. In a DoS attack, the source can (usually) be identified and dealt with. In a large scale DDoS attack, the incoming traffic flooding the victim originates from many different sources. This effectively makes it impossible to stop the attack simply by blocking a single source.

From a learning perspective, an online learner becomes a victim as they are flooded by incoming traffic, or information, originating from many different sources. Trying to stop this attack, or identify the source is simply impossible. Trying to identify truth in a topic is a challenge as the reader is forced to negotiate subtle nuances in truth and fiction. The reader would ultimately look at the vast amount of information coming at them on a topic from multiple sides, not know what is true, and give up. They ultimately decide that “nothing is true” and head back to their personal belief sets since it is a known quantity and believable. Ultimately the reader freezes up and their thinking about a topic is impaired or deemed inoperable. If you multiply this by the thousands as you consider that the Internet is the primary text of this generation, you can quickly see how readers may be confused and not able to utilize their basic literacy practices.


Cover image credits

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.