Sacramento Bee: Can California schools teach kids to spot fake news? Let’s hope so

March 19, 2018

If you believe President Donald Trump, fake news is everywhere. It is a scourge, just not in the way he says it is – any story that makes him look bad.

So I’m all for teaching California school kids to spot fake news. I’m just not totally convinced the state’s education bureaucracy can pull it off.

 Helping students figure out the difference between fact and fiction is a big part of Senate Bill 947, which aims to come up with statewide school standards on internet safety and digital citizenship, including cyberbullying and privacy.

“The recent proliferation of fake news online is extremely concerning. As we witnessed in the 2016 election, fake news can serve as an intentional tool to manipulate the public and undermine our basic values,” Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat and the bill’s author, said in a statement.

The bill, which passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, would require the state superintendent of public instruction to come up with recommendations by Dec. 1, 2019.

So if all works out, Russian troll farms will have a tougher time fooling Californians leading up to the next presidential election in 2020. The groups were indicted last month and sanctioned last week for running a sophisticated disinformation campaign, pretending to be Americans on social media and goading people to attend real events. Their messages often backed Trump or echoed his attacks on Hillary Clinton.

I’m definitely interested in what the candidates for schools superintendent have to say about the bill, since whoever wins in November would have to develop best practices and strategies in consultation with an advisory committee that includes school superintendents, school board members, administrators, students, librarians, parents and experts in digital citizenship, internet safety and media literacy. Though the bill doesn’t specifically mention them, I hope the panel includes a journalist or two.

Mindy Romero, the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, says selecting a strong advisory panel is crucial. While she can’t officially take positions on bills, Romero says it’s clear that legislation like this is needed so that students have the tools to be informed voters and participants in our democracy.

“We give our students an abysmal civics education in our schools,” she told me. “They are not learning enough about the voting process itself, let alone how to successfully navigate things like spin, ‘fake news’ and how to be media literate.”

She’s right. California definitely needs better civics education, especially in today’s fast-moving digital world. Common Sense Kids Action, an advocacy group in San Francisco, backs the bill. So do the California School Boards Association and California School Library Association.

But the measure may need more of a boost to become law. A similar bill also passed the Senate Education Committee last April, but was held in Senate Appropriations. An analysis estimated the price of the advisory panel at $727,000, and said local school districts would face additional costs for new instructional materials and teacher training and possibly for new teachers.

For those of us who grew up before Google and Facebook, it’s amazing how much information is available online. But if the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that you can’t believe everything you see. If students can learn that before they become voters, it seems worth the cost.