We Need to Teach Our Kids the Truth About the Internet

The whole concept of fact-checking is lost to most people. “I saw it on the internet” is good enough. It had headlines. It looked official. It said it was a news site. Therefore Hilary Clinton is selling children to a child-sex ring in a pizza parlor. No one is explaining to children that the internet is not truth. Truth can be found on it–but the internet is not equal to reality.   And we’re failing to convey this simple fact to people young and old. We seem to assume they should already know this. They don’t. And saying “don’t believe everything you read on the internet” is not enough.

The internet, as educated adults know, is seething with lies. Conspiracy theories, fake news from “white nationalist” racists, slanders against decent Democrats and progressives–there are web skeins, long chains of racist, fake-history videos each reinforcing the prior one, shunted to you by algorithms designed to keep you on whatever website you’re on–often, the egregious youtube– all coming at us in a cascade of falsity. There is the fallacious elaborately “supported” claim that the Civil War was not about slavery–if you do your fact-checking you find that this claim is untrue. But who bothers? There isn’t time–we have to check our Instagram feed, our Twitter feed, our Facebook Conspiracy Round-up Group.  Anti-Vaxxers get their falsehoods from the internet. The Qanon  conspiracy-theory fantasy is spread on the internet. From those sources parents and scared youth get the impression their doctors are trying to make them sick with vaccines and the government is trying to enslave them. There are amazing numbers of people following videos on youtube claiming that Michelle Obama is really a drag queen or a transsexual; that we never went to the moon; and, yes, that the Earth is flat. And then there’s Alex Jones’ special brand of fantasy.

We should be teaching our children how to use the internet in a different way. We should be teaching them critical thinking–if a claim is outrageous it’s almost certainly not true; if an outrageous claim is backed up by untraceable or phonily sourced “proofs” it’s certainly not true. We should be training them, above all, to identify intelligent, reliable sources of information. Even some conservative ones–the Wall Street Journal online is not so bad, at least it gets most of its underlying facts straight (they go awry in the interpretation of a fact’s ramifications), and a few other conservative sources are alright. More to the point, I find that the New York Times, despite claims to the contrary, is even-handed, and so is the Washington Post. We need to find ways to demonstrate one on one that some sources are reputable and we must find clear ways to set this out. Otherwise our children will be wandering, lost, in the world’s ugliest jungle–the internet…

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