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International education in a world of fake news and filter bubbles

By Louise Badham

It has been claimed that we live in a world of “post-truth politics”. Ours is a globalized and interconnected world where the power of social media is embraced in political campaigns and “appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored”. In the turbulent arena of international politics, fake news has a powerful influence on public opinion and social media algorithms create filter bubbles where “most available information conforms to pre-existing attitudes and biases”. Prejudices and beliefs are reinforced to such an extent that it has even been questioned whether our capacity to distinguish fact from fiction has been jeopardised.

In this post-truth world, incendiary rhetoric is perpetuated via social media, creating divisions and enhancing existing tensions across states, cultures and peoples, all of which undermine basic principles of tolerance and unity which are at the heart of international education. In such a context, it has been argued that the need for international education is greater than ever before.

Yet it has also been argued that education can serve as “resistance to the gross social and economic inequality” and that it must “broaden horizons, socially, culturally and politically by providing connections between people across the globe”. Such openness is at the heart of an IB education and its core value of international-mindedness. As Ian Hill, former IB Deputy Director General, observes, in a world so interconnected through technology “the need to understand and appreciate each other across national and cultural boundaries has never been more critical”. In this post-truth era, international education must maintain its commitment to international-mindedness, whilst also preparing young people for the digitalised world with its abundance of fake news and misinformation.

A recent study at Stanford University suggests that today’s young people are largely unprepared for such challenges. Responses from school and college-aged students were analysed to assess their “civic online reasoning” (ability to judge the reliability of information encountered online and via social media) and it was found that the majority were unable to evaluate information sufficiently, with very few students questioning the legitimacy of sources even at undergraduate level. It was concluded that there is a need for “further instruction in how best to navigate social media content, particularly when that content comes from a source with a clear political agenda”. These findings suggest that critical thinking must go beyond an awareness of “potential bias and inaccuracy” and must involve actively questioning the legitimacy of sources of information, particularly in a digital context. Such strategies can be employed to “inoculate” individuals against the effects of misinformation. Fact-checking, questioning of sources and general awareness of the misinformation problem can reduce our susceptibility to its influence.

It has also been argued that traditional notions of “critical thinking” may need to be expanded if it is to be truly effective. Bowell suggests that educators should also factor in the significance of emotional responses, which is particularly relevant as fake news is emotionally targeted. Therefore, learners must be encouraged to question how and why emotional reactions are provoked, and to investigate the veracity of the “truth” such media purports to convey. Bowell argues that there is a need for a pedagogy that develops “skills of good reasoning and argumentation, that acknowledges and accommodates the role of emotion in our responses to and decisions about the world”. This is particularly significant in post-truth politics when the public is manipulated through appeals to emotion on social media that are often unsubstantiated or difficult to fact-check. Critical thinking cannot be considered a purely objective, analytical process; but must include increased self-awareness and recognition of our emotional responses. It must be questioned how and why emotional reactions are provoked and by whom.

These essential skills are evident in the IB Diploma Programme both through the IB learner profile and in individual course designs. In the DP Language A: language and literature course, for example, the key concept of international-mindedness is supported through the study of translated texts which “contributes to a global perspective, thereby promoting an insight into, and understanding of, the different ways in which cultures influence and shape the experiences of life common to all humanity”. Moreover, students study a wide variety of different text types and explore how language is used in different contexts, including the media. As such, this course helps to develop the cognitive and affective critical thinking skills needed to navigate the modern world. Students are required to analyse texts (the broad definition of “text” including newspaper articles, websites and blogs as well as poetry, etc.) and consider aspects such as the intended audience, purpose, ideological bias of the writers as well as the stylistic features that engage the reader. These all have applicability in daily post-truth life where we must analyse material to distinguish genuine information from misinformation.

International educators have a responsibility to develop a pedagogy that provides learners with strategies to be able to approach the digitalised world as informed citizens. As caretakers of the IB’s mission, we are faced with challenges that could not have been foreseen when the organization was founded half a century ago. Yet the organization’s central aim remains unchanged: to create a more peaceful world through international education. This now involves developing internationally-minded learners with both the cognitive and affective critical thinking skills needed to face the post-truth challenges of fake news and misinformation, allowing them to make decisions from a truly informed position.

Louise Badham is Subject Manager for the Studies of Language and Literature at the IB and would like to thank Dr Tristan Bunnell who supervised her Masters studies in International Education. This post was derived from a University of Bath MA Education assignment.