Fake News Hunters and Other Stories from the World of Disinformation

By Sonja Merljak Zdovc

In Slovenia, many 11- to 17-year-old children receive their news directly from social media platforms, such as TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram. However, not all of the stories that these children encounter are true. The challenge we as a community now face is how to sift through the fake stories and disinformation to find the truth. How can children effectively navigate a complex and ever-growing media world in an engaging manner? As a media literacy educator, I noticed that my students responded more positively to educational content in a video format, and while there are many amazing media literacy videos available such as Monsters or House Hippo 2.0, they are all in English, and therefore, inaccessible to my Slovenian classrooms.

In October 2020, I virtually attended the Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) Global seminar on “Shaping the Global Narrative on Media Literacy” and after the seminar, I was awarded an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State to enact change and directly address this issue. Through this grant, I created a community-based digital project titled, “Fake News Hunters and Other Stories from the World of Disinformation.” My project aims to equip 150 primary and 150 secondary school students with effective media literacy tools on disinformation that both entertain and educate them exactly where they are — on social media platforms. These youth will now have the tools that will help them understand the impact of the disinformation pandemic on their lives and on society.

For the project, we created a series of videos aimed at children with key media literacy messages. We shared these videos on various social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, etc. and published them in a dedicated section of the online Slovenian newspaper, Časoris. In addition to the videos, this program includes the development of two workshops (one for primary schools and one for secondary schools), creating teaching resources and information for children and teachers, and disseminating these resources to other students and teachers who are unable to participate in these workshops. However, at the end of March 2021, the novel coronavirus pushed Slovenia into its third lockdown, forcing my team and I to postpone the workshops until May 2021.

Students watching an animated video discussing deep fakes.

Despite a delay in the execution of the community workshops, it was clear that the media literacy videos were resonating with their target audience as students shared their feedback about the videos during the May workshops stating that they were highly engaging and entertaining. With the videos, viewers also have access to posters, and each poster echoes the key media literacy messages of the video it accompanies. Students can download and print these posters and place them in their notebooks or on the classroom wall, engaging with them in any manner that best suits their needs.

A photo from the animated video on deep fakes.
A photo from the video on how to check the author of a post on Tik Tok.
A poster created for a video highlighting the importance of why it is necessary to think before sharing.

In addition to engaging children through the videos, this project is empowering these children to create content of their own and impart their new knowledge to their peers through the creative lens of social media videos. We invited the children to create their own videos that convey key media literacy messages in their own words to their peers. To date, 12 videos were submitted, however many more are expected as the competition approaches its conclusion at the end of May 2021.

As this project is still ongoing, I am continuing to navigate the challenges that arise throughout and have gained a number of insights on how to effectively execute it. For example, one issue that I dealt with is the general fatigue of the students. With the combination of the pandemic and the reintroduction into schoolwork and life, it is difficult to motivate them to do anything that they might consider unnecessary work. My ultimate solution was discovering that the best way to engage them was to work directly through their teachers who are better equipped to bring the content and importance of the mission to their immediate attention. Another problem I encountered and continue to creatively brainstorm on is how to increase the reach of media literacy videos to more children on social media platforms such as Tik Tok. Since the platform itself is considered unchartered territory for many adults, the solution to this problem might lie with including younger team members.

Despite these challenges, I am continually grateful to have participated in the Alumni TIES program. I am hopeful that this project will become an innovative and successful media literacy project and helps children understand the importance of thinking before sharing, knowing how to spot fake news, and comprehending the impact of disinformation on their lives and our society as a whole.

Fake News Hunters and Other Stories from the World of Disinformation is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.

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