Fake news and alternative facts have hit the headlines recently. Expert Andreas Schleicher wants to see school curricula revised to pay attention to critical thinking skills, so that citizens will understand how to recognize this trickery.

Schleicher is the director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, which assesses educational systems around the globe: “In the past, when you needed information, you went to an encyclopaedia, you looked it up, and you could trust that information to be true,” he said in a recent report. These days, we have to question the sources of information, because propaganda and spin are rampant on the Internet.

Schleicher continued, “Social media is designed to create an echo chamber. We are likely to talk with people who are like us. Who think similarly to us. And that’s precisely, almost the antithesis, to global competency.”

This is a real concern for us here at Open Minds, and an essential part of our mission. It is all too easy to gather only information that confirms an existing bias, and to block disagreeable evidence through cognitive dissonance. Children need to learn how to differentiate reliable sources and assess information for its accuracy.

In an article published in Scientific American, Walter Quattrociocchi reveals his research into the “echo chamber” of social media. After studying millions of Internet posts, he and his team concluded that people tend to believe only information that supports an existing view – confirmation bias – and that attempts to provide accurate information often only strengthen belief – as previous investigations into cognitive dissonance have shown: “despite optimistic talk about ‘collective intelligence’ and the wisdom of crowds, the Web has in fact driven the creation of the echo chamber.”

Quattrociocchi concludes by saying, “Perhaps we should stop calling this the Information Age and start calling it the Age of Credulity.”

At worst, fake news and deliberate misinformation can lead to war. The eagerness with which most politicians accepted the fake reports that Iraq had chemical weapons and long-range missile capability is shocking: schoolchildren are not the only ones who need to develop critical thinking skills!

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Worldwide Web joined the debate in a recent open letter, saying, “misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”

Berners-Lee wants to see new legislation and changes in social media sites, and we at Open minds agree with him. It has become increasingly necessary to teach children – and adults – how to differentiate between fake and real reporting. Together, we must work towards a world in which hard evidence wins out over emotional bias and manipulation.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about fake news that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!