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Florida Schools Could Be Frontlines in Misinformation Fight

This Cyber Citizenship initiative, developed by a partnership between New America and Cyber Florida, will equip educators with resources to teach K-12 students how to identify misinformation online.

misinformation (single-use only)
Online misinformation has risen to new heights in the past year, bringing questions about how to take away its power. Between misinformation campaigns about elections and those related to the pandemic, experts have raised concerns that the inability to distinguish truth from falsehood online could have lasting negative impacts to society.

Cyber Florida and the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, both housed within the University of South Florida, and New America, a nonprofit think tank aimed at public problem-solving, teamed up in December 2020 to combat this problem. The partnership was the foundation to launch an initiative to give young people with the digital literacy skills to better process and analyze the information they encounter online.

The partnership has been working to build the Cyber Citizenship Portal, a website with a comprehensive collection of no-cost resources Florida teachers can use to educate students on these issues. The portal is currently in development and should be available in the next academic year.

“[The] long-term scaled impact will affect, literally, millions of kids and build out long-term resilience in the United States against these kinds of challenges that threaten everything from our democracy to our public health,” explained Peter Singer, strategist and senior fellow at New America.

Singer noted that there are typically two responses to misinformation online: calls for social media platforms to change their algorithms to stop the spread of misinformation and calls for further regulation, as seen in recent debates about section 230.

According to Singer, there is a third response to misinformation that has largely been left out of the discussion: the human aspect. He cited research from the Carnegie Endowment, which showed the most frequently recommended policy action to combat misinformation and disinformation was to improve the digital literacy of the people consuming it.

Ron Sanders, staff director with Cyber Florida, also noted the significance of being able to identify misinformation campaigns that spread during the recent presidential elections. Young voters, he argued, need to be taught about cyber citizenship because so much of democracy today occurs over the Internet. These lessons about discerning falsehoods online need to be taught, Sanders said, adding that kids shouldn’t be learning this on the 21st century version of the street corner, social media.

Singer added that while much of the focus in addressing this issue has been on finding a single solution, he believes that corrective efforts need to be long term and systemic. While not every person will be able to correctly identify misinformation online all the time, Singer said that a comprehensive approach to teach students the digital literacy skills will better equip them for this task.

This strategy has three major components, Singer explained.

The first is coalition building in the education space, the technology space and even the national security space — all sectors with a common desire to combat misinformation. Involving other partners, like the National Association for Media Literacy Education, will help to bring diverse expertise to the approach. The second component is research, involving a comprehensive, co-authored research paper to coordinate the core concepts and tools that may be available in this effort. And the third is creating the portal itself, which will be a space where teachers can find the digital literacy tools they need.

“The objective of our three-way partnership is to open our electronic doors to frontline educators,” stated Sanders.

The portal will involve curriculum, videos and other resources for teachers. The goal is also to have it age-specific, said Singer, as the tools a fourth grader will need to identify misinformation online will be different than those of a 12th grader, who will soon be voting.

While the primary focus of the Cyber Citizenship Portal will be centered on Florida, Sanders said, the subject matter could be applied nationally or even internationally, and the hope is that the program will expand to other states and beyond.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.