There are two initiatives in Italy to combat fake news by teaching digital literacy to high school students. The first project is spearheaded by Laura Boldrini, the president of the Italian lower house of Parliament, to educate a generation of students to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories that circulate on the web. The story was reported in the New York Times. The lessons are a part of an extraordinary experiment by the Italian government, in cooperation with leading digital companies including Facebook, and is being rolled out in 8,000 high schools across the country.
“Fake news drips poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it,” said Ms. Boldrini. “It’s only right to give these kids the possibility to defend themselves from lies.” Besides tackling projects and work sheets, the students learn how their “likes” on Facebook are monetized and politicized. They are learning a new set of the Ten Commandments, including “thou shalt not share unverified news,” “thou shall ask for sources and evidence,” and “thou shall remember that the internet and social networks can be manipulated.”
This initiative couldn’t come at a better time…just ahead of crucial Italian elections. Amid global suspicions of Russian meddling in elections in the United States, Germany, and France, as well as in Brexit and in the Catalan independence movement, fake news and propaganda could damage Italy, one of the last major center-left governments remaining in Europe.
And it seems that Italy is fertile ground for digital deceit. Frustrated by economic problems, high unemployment, and the migrant crisis, many Italians subscribe to all kinds of conspiracy theories. It is called “dietrologia,” the belief that there is always something “dietro” (behind) the surface. According to Alessandro Campi, a professor of political science at Perugia University, the Italian passion for seeing intrigue around every corner runs deep. “All of this is part of the Italian cultural heritage” from a long history of foreign domination, to scheming popes and cardinals, to corrupt government. He continues, “I’d say that the Five Star Movement [a right-wind group led by Beppe Grillo] believes more than any other political party in conspiracy theories.” One example is the party’s rejection of childhood vaccinations despite scientific consensus. Grillo calls them scans by pharmaceutical companies with the intention of “weakening children’s immune system.”
Ms. Boldrini claims that the internet cannot be forfeited to the fringes, and that the government must teach the next generation of Italian voters how to defend themselves against falsehoods and conspiracy theories designed to play on their fears.
The other major initiative in Italy is called “The Daily in Class,” which is sponsored by l’Observatorio permanente giovani-editori (Opge), an organization whose mission is to develop critical thinking in youth to make them better citizens of tomorrow. It supplies schools with 3 quality newspapers each week. By teaching how different newspapers present the same facts in a different way, the project hopes to develop critical thinking and the ability to distinguish reliable sources from those that are not. This project is entrusted to the International Advisory Council of Opge, a think tank that includes the directors of the most prestigious American newspapers: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.
Recently, Tim Cook, the head of Apple, met in Florence with students from this initiative: “The consequences of fake news are worse than one can imagine, because they are used to polarize society more and more.” In praising the media literacy project of Opge, Cook emphasized the importance of considering different perspectives including those with which you don’t agree.
The director of Opge met with other directors from Silicon Valley. An interesting concept emerged: A person in front of a screen of a personal computer, or handling a smartphone or a tablet, takes on a more radical position toward subject matter that he or she reads compared to a someone who, instead, discusses the subject matter with a flesh-and-blood person. They also discussed how fake news has become an instrument in a strategy that aims to divide: Just the opposite of what the Internet has done so far—unite distant peoples.