How Google-backed MediaWise is teaching teens media literacy

Last March, Google granted $3 million to the Poynter Institute for an effort to fight disinformation by educating teens about media literacy. The project, called MediaWise, had the goal of reaching 1 million teens by 2020. Less than a year into the effort, program manager Katy Byron said she’s “completely confident” they’ll surpass that milestone over the next year.

“I’m not talking one impression on social media — though I will say we already surpassed 1 million impressions on social media in less than six months. The ‘million teens by 2020’ is mostly talking about the students who are going to see the curriculum taught in schools,” Byron said.

This week, MediaWise kicks off a part of their programming strategy with in-school assemblies for 1,700 students in Houston, Texas. Byron and her team will present tips on how to identify fake news, such as using reverse Google image search to validate the sourcing of images and checking fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact. To keep the presentation interactive, the team will be creating polls on Instagram Stories where students can vote if they think an image is fake or not. This effort is all ahead of a new fall curriculum about fact-checking that MediaWise is working on with Stanford History Education Group.

The internet has a fake-news problem, and Google is one of its many culprits. Google processes 3.5 billion searches a day, and the results that come up aren’t always trusted news sources. Google surfaces questionable content from sites such as Breitbart and Infowars, for example. YouTube’s algorithms have promoted conspiracy theories ranging from “Pizzagate” to those attempting to debunk the moon landing. In response, Google launched the Google News Initiative last year. With Google’s funding, MediaWise is working with Poynter, SHEG, Local Media Association and the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

And Google is not the only tech company combating fake news. Facebook, another culprit of fake news, recently gave a $1 million grant to the News Literacy Project, a Washington-based non-profit also tasked with helping young people identify fake news, as part of the Facebook Journalism Project.

These investments in combating fake news are certainly good PR for the tech giants. The projects arguably aren’t that costly either when Google is worth more than $766 billion and Facebook is valued at more than $405 billion. And it remains to be seen how effective they will be in actually alleviating the spread of fake news.

But Byron believes in the work her team is doing. “If misinformation is a disease, then the MediaWise project is like the Red Cross. That’s the way I think about it. We’re helping teenagers, specifically middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, discern facts from fiction,” Byron said.

There are plenty of statistics showing a lack of media literacy. One that Byron often cites is from Stanford, which found that more than 80 percent of middle school students in 2016 didn’t know the difference between sponsored content and a real news story.

Along with the school assemblies, MediaWise has been creating educational material on social media, including YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. These videos are typically hosted by MediaWise journalists Allison Graves and Hiwot Hailu.

A newly launched teen fact-checking network, comprised of teens from middle schools and high schools nationwide, will contribute videos as well. MediaWise has 24 students in the network so far and plans to expand the program every few months, Byron said.

Madeleine Katz, 16, of Palm Harbor University High School, said she decided to join the fact-checking network because she believes younger people like herself needed more tools to distinguish what information is truthful.

“When people make decisions based on misinformation, it can negatively impact their own lives and the lives of others. It is important that we empower our generation to be informed decision makers, and I am happy to be a part of that educational process,” Katz said.

MediaWise has also worked with YouTubers who have given their own testimonials about sharing fake news and difficulties with trusting media. John Green, a best-selling author and co-creator of VidCon, is launching a 10-part series titled “Navigating Digital Information” on Jan. 8.

Byron said her team will be doing more public appearances in 2019, including hosting a panel at South by Southwest with Snap’s head of news Peter Hamby. And they’ll be working to promote the Stanford curriculum once it’s released in the fall.

A Google spokesperson said Poynter has been a great partner in leading the MediaWise project. But it’s unclear how long the effort will last; the spokesperson said Google will review it at the end of the campaign and added that whatever materials are created will have a long-term impact.

“The grant expires in June 2020, and I will say on the record I certainly would love to continue this project,” Byron said.

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