Preparing Students for the Society of Misinformation

Fake news is not news in 2019. It is a potentially harmful phenomenon and though it’s always been here, the rise of social media and the quickening pace of media reaction in general have increased its volume and impact. So much so that by now fake news is not even the right term to use. There are at least 7 types of mis- or disinformation to distinguish between; from satire to somewhat manipulated content to fabricated information. Despite fake news being a complex issue that we face daily, there is a general agreement about how to prevent its dangers from spreading: through media literacy education. In Western countries there are several well-funded initiatives to teach media literacy; however, in eastern European countries like Hungary this field is still in its infancy. For this article I interviewed Hungarian teachers about the current use, or lack thereof, of education regarding responsible news consumption.

By Blanka Kovács

The latest version of the National Core Curriculum in Hungary was published in 2012 by the government. Its main function is to create a single programme for public schools throughout the country. This curriculum aims to give teachers guidelines for what they should teach, but the expectations are often vague, and teachers are usually left with lots more work to do in order to create teaching plans.

The curriculum advises that media awareness be taught in Information Technology, History, Visual and Media Studies, and Hungarian Grammar classes. It is usually touched upon within the last of these. It is a relatively new topic to discuss with students, so my question was: how do teachers teach their pupils about the threat of misinformation?

According to József, a Hungarian Grammar and Literature teacher in a prestigious high school in the outskirts of Budapest, the topic is already covered in classes. “There is only one type of Grammar textbook series a teacher may use due to the administration’s efforts to unify what we teach. In these books the topic of fake news comes up in every grade. However, the authors present it as if this phenomenon is the internet’s fault only; they don’t put it into the context of established press or journalism. This is why I feel like I need to spice up the exercises a bit. For example, when in literature class we talk about poets or writers who were also journalists, we talk a lot about popular publishing styles. The students like tasks when they have to compare an article of a dead poet and a piece from 444.hu, one of Hungary’s main news outlets. In my opinion, the most important thing is to learn how to treat sources. It’s not useful when you, as a teacher, tell them to stop reading specific websites or magazines. They wouldn’t pay attention. So in the era of Google and hyperlinks, what I try to get across is how to be analytical when you read something.”

Alma, a Hungarian Grammar and Literature teacher in a small secondary school in rural Hungary, mostly seconded József’s views during our interview. “Yes, the curriculum contains journalism and advertising but beyond that it is not very strict regarding what you have to teach. When talking about it with the pupils, I focus on online communication and quality journalism. They have to search for articles and argue why it is false.” So, as the examples show, the topic of fake news made it to the Hungarian school system, to a certain extent. But is that enough?

In the US there are many more resources offered to train young people to become informed news readers as well as to prepare teachers to teach about it. For example, in September 2018 California’s Department of Education made teaching about fake news a requirement, saying “news literacy is to help safeguard the future of democracy”. With this decree California joined Washington, New Mexico and many other US states. After passing the law, a web-based system of materials has been created for teachers to report on how they plan to teach it in schools. Furthermore, a US-based NGO, the News Literacy Project has also created a software to teach children how to spot misinformation and how to recognize trustworthy articles. As their Chief Operating Officer Charles Salter told a workshop on misinformation in February 2019 at Central European University, the demand for such products is clear. In fact, the governing body of New York City has just provided every school in the city with Checkology, a fake news education software.

According to the people I’ve interviewed, something like that would be great in Hungary, too. Unfortunately, the education system in Hungary is infamously lacking not only the necessary funds, but also the know-how of how to distribute them. There are much more fundamental problems that the sector needs to fix. The starting monthly salary for teachers with a BA is not higher than the Hungarian minimum wage for people with at least secondary education; for teachers with MA degrees, it is only HUF 8,000 (€24) higher. Under these circumstances the best that teachers can do is to “be creative”. “I think it’s a problem that while we are told to teach about quality journalism, the fake news phenomenon itself is not named in the core curriculum, at least not in the Hungarian Grammar subject guidelines. The curriculum does not outline what a grammar teacher should teach regarding the topic and so in a lot of cases I have to make an extra effort to reach out to colleagues teaching other subjects and cross-check what we are expected to teach.” said Lili, a teacher from Budapest who works in an independent school  primarily aimed at students who have learning difficulties or who have been expelled from other institutions.

In Hungary, teachers are required to attend workshops every year, but József said he has only found one media literacy workshop in the national database for these events. “I wish there was a fund for such things. Currently schools aren’t even allowed to spend money on electronic gadgets. It’s challenging to discuss the threats of social media without accessing them in the classroom. Ideally, we would receive an institutional grant, and the school committee could decide what we spend it on. Or we could apply for money to organise thematic projects for the kids about news consumption with teachers who must teach about it according to the curriculum. But this is surely a utopia - most likely nothing will change”, he added.

All in all, we can see that the problem is not that teaching young people about misinformation is not present in Hungarian schools. The problem is in the bigger picture: there is no budget to use innovative methods and to react to current issues speedily. Teachers are left alone with educating kids about the challenges of the fake news phenomenon. This basically means they are left alone without help in the mission of training them how to be responsible citizens in a democracy.