FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
09:00 Friday 30 September, 2011
Demos: Conspiracy theories rife in classrooms
New research finds that 48 per cent of teachers surveyed by the think tank Demos report having argued about conspiracy theories with their pupils. One in twenty say this happens on a weekly basis.
In a report published today, Demos warns that ‘digital natives’ (12-18 year olds) are often confident, but not competent internet users.
One in four young people do not make any checks at all when visiting a new website. Less than 1 in 10 ask who made the site and why. One third of young people believe that information generated by search engines must be true and 15 per cent base their opinions of a website on how it looks and feels to use.
The report includes the results of a survey of 509 teachers in England and Wales about their pupil’s digital fluency. It found:
- Misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories are being brought into the classroom: 47 per cent of teachers surveyed report having arguments in lessons of receiving school work that contains inaccurate content from the internet (for example, holocaust denial).
- The ability to evaluate online information is central to young people’s understanding of the world: 88 per cent of teachers surveyed consider internet-based research to be important for their pupil’s schoolwork and 75 per cent believe that internet-based content is important in the formation and validation of pupils’ beliefs.
- Teachers are worried about their pupils’ digital skills: 99 per cent of teachers surveyed think digital fluency is an important skill for their pupils to possess but they rated their pupils’ digital fluency as below average on a range of issues.
- Teachers think digital fluency is key to young people’s education: 88 per cent of teachers surveyed think digital fluency should be given more prominence in the national curriculum.
Demos calls for a greater focus on young people’s ‘digital fluency’ to combat the growth of conspiracy theories amongst school-age children. Digital fluency is the ability to find and evaluate information online. It combines ‘old’ critical thinking skills, such as source verification, with ‘new’ knowledge about how the digital world works, such as understanding search engines.
The report argues that the amount of material available at the click of a mouse can be both liberating and asphyxiating. Although there are more e-books, trustworthy journalism, niche expertise and accurate facts at our fingertips than ever before, there is an equal measure of mistakes, half-truths, propaganda, misinformation and general nonsense. Demos stresses that knowing how to discriminate between them is fundamental to a modern education.
Further recommendations include:
- Digital fluency should become a core part of the National Curriculum and teacher training: all schools should teach pupils about search engines, propaganda techniques, source attribution techniques and the risks of data-sharing.
- The Department for Education should join forces with the private sector to produce materials to support teaching: companies like Google and Yahoo! should create materials that can be used in the classroom to help support teaching digital fluency.
- Parents should take an active role in managing their children’s internet consumption and help encourage critical thinking: over half of 12 to 15-year-olds report they ‘mostly use the internet alone’. Parents should be encouraged to challenge online information and support their children’s critical consumption of the internet.
Jamie Bartlett, author of the report said:
“Too many young people are not discerning internet users. If they can’t find the information they’re looking for, they trust the first thing they come across. They often don’t fact-check the information they find. They frequently don’t recognise bias and propaganda, and don’t go to varied sources.
“As a result, they’re too easily influenced by information they should discard. This makes them vulnerable to false information, cons and scams. Misinformation and conspiracy theories – like those surrounding the death of Bin Laden – are appearing in the classroom, which is something teachers, politicians and parents should be very worried about.
“We can't teach children what to think, but we must ensure that young people can make careful, skeptical and savvy judgements about the internet content they encounter.”
Annika Small, director of the Nominet Trust said:
"At the Nominet Trust we believe that the internet is the single most powerful tool for social good. And like any tool, people need to know how to use it safely, especially young people. That is why we are pleased to support Demos and Bold Creative in investigating the scale of the issue. But it is important to avoid alarmist responses to young people’s use of the internet.
“It is impossible to universally monitor young people’s internet use. So we need to give young people the skills to navigate and interpret the internet safely, and wisely.
“The Nominet Trust invests in projects that do just that. For example, we fund Digital Disruption a suite of online teaching tools for use in schools that provides teachers with all they need to deliver digital literacy lessons."
Martin Orton, Director of Bold Creative said:
“Through extensive workshop programs with young people over the last 3 years we have witnessed first hand the role video propaganda distributed online has played in the escalation of public disorder events. The London riots being a great case in point, sophisticated and targeted advertising has raised youth consumer demand to an unsustainable level. Expectations and reality inevitably collide with devastating consequence.”
“We’re unsettled by the extent to which some young people have had their entire worldview distorted by online propaganda. Strange ideas had become mainstream beliefs: everyone knew that a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world was in its final stages, everyone knew that 9/11 was part of a crusade against Islam perpetrated by the former president of the United States.”
Notes to editors
Truth, Lies and the Internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency by Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller can be downloaded for free from www.demos.co.uk
Between May 16th and July 16th of this year, Demos conducted an online survey of primary and secondary school teachers in England and Wales about their views on their pupils’ digital fluency. Demos received 509 responses, the largest survey of this kind conducted to date.
The sample included a reasonable spread of teachers across different seniorities, subjects and ages. It also included a range of schools across geographical locale, school-type and sector. Post-stratification weightings were applied. The survey was self-selecting, making the results illustrative, rather than representative, of teachers across the country.
Demos is working with digital education specialists Bold Creative to design online tools which respond directly to the issues identified in the report. For more information on these tools contact Martin Orton at Martin@boldcreative.co.uk 02077 392738
This research was funded by the Nominet Trust. The trust support initiatives that contribute to a safe and accessible internet, used to improve lives and communities.
Jamie Bartlett and Annika Small are available for comment and interview.
Beatrice Karol Burks
020 7367 6325
079 2947 4938