The Republic of Molossia, it turns out, is not a real place — despite an elaborate website complete with a video greeting from “His Excellency, The President,” and links to the country’s history, government agencies, and postage stamps.
Most of the eighth-graders at Cohasset Middle/High School figured out the deception as part of classwork aimed at teaching today’s students how to tell the real from the fake in the digital world.
The effort is part of a growing and timely trend in schools — one that began before the latest election season and its aftermath laden with accusations from both sides of information manipulation.
Asked why today’s computer-savvy students need the training, specialists point to a 2016 study at Stanford University that found that “overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”
Says Barbara Gray, chief librarian at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism who teaches fact-checking to college students and tracks similar efforts at all levels of education: “Media literacy is a civic survival skill.”
Bedford public schools Superintendent Jon Sills notes that it’s not only important to teach students how to discern what’s legitimate online, but also for faculty to learn “how best to tackle issues like false news without being politically partisan.”
In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t document what individual schools are doing to increase students’ online detective skills, but it has adopted voluntary “digital literacy” standards that include being able to verify information.
And the state has said that high school students should be able “analyze the beneficial and harmful effects of computing innovations,” such as social networking and public media.
“They all know how to use their little phones and play games and do Snapchat, but I want to turn them into discerning users of technology,” said Kathleen Cerruti, who worked for 20 years in the software industry before becoming Cohasset Middle/High School’s library media specialist.
“With the prevalence of fake news, it’s getting a little trickier now. These skills have to be really honed,” she said.
Cerruti teaches an eighth-grade research class that focuses on how to evaluate websites, using a method called CARS, an acronym for Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support.
Students work in pairs, choose two from a list of 13 actual websites, and then evaluate whether they are “good, or no good.”
The list includes sites for the Republic of Molossia (fake), History of the Fisher Price Airplane (fake), and How to Build a Campfire (real).
The process involves looking at the website’s domain (a .com has less authority than a .edu, for example), at the author’s credentials, at whether the information is out of date or can be verified elsewhere, and at whether there are red flags like misspellings or links that lead nowhere or to ads. Students also look for clues to bias and whether the website makes sense.
“I call it determining treasure or trash,” Cerruti said.
She said the lessons learned are then applied to student research projects — which have ranged from a study of the effect of stormwater runoff on Cohasset Harbor, to cellphone addiction in teens — and all sources have to pass the CARS test.
“It’s a necessary skill,” Cerruti said. “It’s extremely critical to being able to navigate their online world.”
Hingham High School principal Paula Girouard McCann said her school librarians have developed a guide “to what is reliable” for students doing research, but added that all teachers work on “helping kids distinguish between fact and fiction. Teaching kids how to read and analyze has always been one of our goals.”
Donna Milani Luther, head of the Inly School in Scituate, a Montessori school that goes from toddler to eighth grade, said there’s an ongoing conversation about what is real and what isn’t in the digital information world.
“Kids are getting exposed to a lot of things, bombarded,” she said. “We talk to them about finding that compass, that gut check, that says, ‘If I hear that and my stomach turns, I should double-check it because it’s probably not right.’ ”
She added that the school asks that students’ electronic devices go to their parents’ bedrooms at bedtime.
At Andover High School, media specialist John Berube teaches his students to be skeptical and encourages them to take advantage of well-vetted databases and e-books.
“I always emphasize that these have had editors and fact-checkers, and can be relied upon for accuracy and objectivity,” he said.
Danvers Public Schools teach Internet safety and research skills from elementary school, and are adding an elective in media literacy at the high school next school year, according to Superintendent Lisa Dana.
David Copeland, a communications professor at Bridgewater State University, spoke recently at the Kingston Public Library about how to recognize “fake news” and avoid passing along bad information.
He said that he’s trying to encourage healthy skepticism among his students, but is distressed to find many “have crossed over into cynicism.”
“Even fake news has different meanings,” he said. “It started as hoax news, but it’s morphed into news coverage that we don’t agree with. We’re more inclined to believe something that confirms our own world view, so a lot of times [I’m] trying to get people to say if something seems too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true.”
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.