Coming soon to all NJ students: Lessons in debunking

Michael Warren’s students at Hasbrouck Heights High School were contemplating which conspiracy theory to explore and refute: the CIA orchestrated JFK’s assassination, 9/11 was an inside job, the earth is flat, and the moon landing was staged, among others.

On Thursday, 14 students were learning skills that will soon be required for all New Jersey students: critical thinking, effective research, and how to evaluate information.

Just the day before, Gov. Phil Murphy had signed a law making New Jersey the first state in the US to require K-12 lessons in how to tell reliable information from fiction and navigate a world — and an internet — rife with alternative facts and research rabbit holes.

Under the measure, the state Department of Education will soon develop statewide standards for districts to follow, relying on the expertise of school library media specialists and teachers.

In a classroom decorated with posters urging “Click Restraint,” the students on Thursday discussed ways to approach friends and relatives who had espoused conspiracy theories. Their midterm, in fact, had covered the satirical conspiracy theory known as Birds Aren’t Real, which posits that birds are government drones created to spy on citizens.

Warren launched the class in 2019-2020 to help students find reputable online research sources. It has since grown to cover misinformation campaigns and ways to interpret data on COVID and vaccines. He uses information from nonprofit groups helping teachers and students navigate the web, including the News Literacy Project, Common Sense, and PBS, which offers lessons in media literacy.

“The hardest part is having young people be interested in the news,” Warren said before his third-period class filed into a classroom in the media center, formerly the school library.

“It’s tough. They don’t follow the news, and that’s what the course meant to address,” he said. “They can no longer just say, ‘I saw it on TikTok.’ How do you go about checking that source?” Warren said he wanted students to become comfortable calling out misinformation when they see it.

The class watched a video that gave evidence against the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. At least 650 space program employees would have had to keep the ruse a secret; it would be more costly to fake the landing than to complete it; and there is a simple explanation for why the American flag planted on the moon’s soil looked to be waving, even though there is no wind there — a rod in the flag held it horizontal, giving the impression it was fluttering.

The students learned how conspiracy theories emerge when people feel the world is too complicated and want to build communities with like-minded people. And they came to understand the popularity of such theories – Warren cited a 2014 global study showing only 30% of those surveyed had heard of the Holocaust and believed historical accounts of it.

Students also received tips on engaging conspiracy theorists – keep calm, don’t get in a shouting match, ask open-ended questions, encourage critical thinking, share facts from reputable sources, and use humor.

Murphy had spoken proudly about the information literacy law (S588), mentioning it on the Friday anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks, when people who did not believe the results of the 2020 election stormed the US Capitol. The Democratic governor noted “we are the first state to ensure that our kids, and the generations to come, possess the skills needed to discern fact from fiction and reject disinformation.” He also hailed the bill along with other bipartisan legislation at a bill signing on Thursday.

But from across the political aisle, state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, a primary sponsor of the bill, took issue with Murphy’s words. He sent out a statement Friday saying, “I am disappointed that Gov. Murphy has chosen to frame the value of teaching kids about information literacy in terms of Jan. 6, which could give the impression there is some ideological slant to the law, which there is not.”

Back in the classroom, sophomore Aidan Morrow said he took the class because he wanted to learn more about current events. “The class taught us how to tell the difference between good and bad websites, so we know which ones are credible,” he said. “I feel everyone should know how to do this stuff.”

Vienna Skye Dates, a junior, said she used to rely on the first website that popped up, but now she checks to ensure she gets her information from legitimate sites. She said one of her friends believes the earth is flat, so she used some of her newfound skills to talk to her.

“I try not to laugh,” she said, “I was kind of asking her what made her think and believe that, and I gave my alternate opinion.”

And did that work?

“Sort of,” Vienna said. “She’s, like, on the fence.”

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Tina Kelley may be reached at [email protected].

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