On an episode of Radiolab recorded earlier this year, host Simon Adler leads us down a fascinating and somewhat terrifying path into the future of fake news, where videos of real people—like a U.S. president—can be made to say fake things. While we have strategies for identifying fake images, a new wave of audio and video manipulation tools have the potential to twist reality even further. For educators and those of us thinking about how to ensure that students have the skills they need to be informed citizens, these new technologies are an urgent reminder of the importance of news and media literacy education.
Adler presents a few new tools that seem pretty innocuous and even cool at first look. But when you think about how they might be used to spread misinformation, the ethical implications are concerning. Voco, an Adobe application still in development, promises to become “the Photoshop for speech.” After inputting a 40-minute recording of a person’s speech, the user can use a simple text editor to “write” an original and very convincing new recording in that person’s voice.
In addition, new tech companies focused on facial re-enactment are getting closer to a tool that allows for realistic manipulation of a video of a person. In other words, you can take a video of someone giving a speech and change their expression and facial movements. Couple this with a voice manipulation tool, and you can essentially create a realistic-looking video of anyone talking about anything.
That’s huge, right? How can we prepare students for a world in which nothing can be trusted? The truth is, we’re already doing it. Media manipulation and fake news aren’t new, and many teachers already facilitate lessons and activities focused on building critical thinking skills around media. From finding credible sources to making sound arguments, kids exercise these skills in a variety of ways in the classroom. Sure, new technologies will require us to refine and iterate on tried-and-true media literacy techniques, but some core questions remain the same.
It’s time to double down on news and media literacy. Build your lessons on these essential questions to ground students in solid critical thinking habits.
1. Who created this message? This helps students pull back the curtain and recognize that all media is constructed by an author with a particular vision, background, and agenda.
2. Why is this message being sent? Why was it made? Have students investigate the purpose of a message. Is it to inform, entertain, or persuade, or is it some combination of these? How does the message make students feel? They should consider the various motives behind sending a message, whether that’s gaining power, profit, or influence.
3. Where is this message being distributed? Help students consider what the distribution of a message can tell us about the message itself. Where did the video show up? On a social media feed? Who originally posted it? Is it showing up anywhere else? Are reputable news outlets distributing the video?
4. Which techniques are used to attract my attention? Whether it’s a video, commercial, or app, different forms of digital media use unique conventions to keep us engaged.
5. Which lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented—or missing? All messages have embedded values and points of view. And oftentimes certain perspectives and voices are missing—a gap that’s important to consider.
Here are some other teacher-tested news and media literacy resources for your lessons:
- Beyond Fake News: A News and Media Literacy Toolkit for Educators (Common Sense Education)
- Classroom Guide Fake News Checklist: Ten Questions for Fake News Detection (News Literacy Project)
- Facts vs. Opinions vs. Informed Opinions and Their Role in Journalism Grades 3-12 (PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs)
- How to Teach Your Students About Fake News Grades 7-12 (PBS NewsHour Extra)