Statistics are showing that Finland’s patient and comprehensive campaign to halt the spread of fake news is starting to see positive results. A key element of the strategy is education – teaching young students to be alert to falsities they encounter online, to be wary of what’s presented as fact and to be resourceful about verifying information. Other countries are paying attention to the effort, but finding that, so far, there’s still only a glimmer of hope, and even that didn’t appear overnight.
Finnish students have been learning about methods employed to deceive users of social media, about how easily pictorial imagery can be manipulated, about half-truths, faked user-profiles and how intimidation comes into play. The more astute among them will be understanding important life lessons – that there is a dark side to society and that there are ways to overcome it with honesty and optimism.
The students are shown how to identify bots and trolling banks by assessing the volume of posts per day from any single source. They’re shown re-purposed photos captioned with falsified information and learn how to spot inconsistent translations and the telltale lack of a poster’s personal information. It’s not all that complicated – unless you compare it with teaching young children how to cross the street safely, which in simpler times was the source of our worst worries.
What younger Finns are learning is just part of an anti-fake-news
initiative launched by their
government in 2014, fully two years before Russia apparently meddled in the United States presidential election. Journalists, politicians and in fact all residents are being
encouraged to appreciate the
hurtful societal divisiveness that false information can cause.
The campaign is remarkable for its scope and understanding of the problem and the long-term planning attached to it. Fake news isn’t to be tackled through flash-in-the-pan measures and it would be a grave mistake to leave children out of the public-education process. The Finnish model seeks to build a fortress against falsity from the ground up, so that if children can recognise attempts to dupe them and to respond appropriately, the future of truth has a sound basis.
The most troubling component of fake news is “hate speech” – commentary rooted in racism, sexism and other regressive prejudices. Children everywhere, whether at home or in school, should be raised to recognise such generalised intolerance as despicable and anti-social and be taught to shun it and, if they can safely do so, combat it.
Thailand, so agonisingly divided along political lines, is vulnerable to fake news and its ugly offspring hate speech. Here too, youngsters should be taught how easily if crudely and unwittingly their attention and
interests can be manipulated. Our kids are internet wizards and they should be more adept than their
elders at fact-checking.
Demands are made that social-media platforms impose stricter measures to stem the spread of fake news. Their response is inevitably tied to the knowledge, expertise and intelligence of their users – and to those users’ contrary expectations of freely flowing information. So, in truth, the survival of fake news comes down to the users’ ability to recognise falsity and their level of tolerance for it. That is the ground that up from which this battle will be won or lost. The evolution will require patience, yet can be hastened with persistence and an unwillingness to compromise.
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