How to build data literacy to help students navigate misinformation

Undoing the effects of disinformation is a difficult but not impossible challenge
By: | October 5, 2021
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On a  social media live stream last month, Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID, discussed the increase in misinformation, how it is “really confusing for the general public” and how it is “really allowing the virus to thrive.”

In July, Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, declared COVID misinformation to be a “serious public threat.”

Social media and news disinformation didn’t start with COVID-19, but the pandemic, in part, has been worsened by a perfect storm of factors allowing disinformation and misinformation purveyors to have an oversized impact. Look no further than the “Disinformation Dozen”—the 12 people responsible for sharing 65% of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media.

Despite the efforts of many trusted sources, about 30% of American adults still have not received a shot, and 45% are not fully vaccinated.

Undoing the effects of disinformation is a difficult but not impossible challenge. While Americans’ political views are entrenched, multiple surveys indicate it is age, not politics, that most influences who shares fake news. Researchers at Princeton and NYU found in a study that 65+-year-olds are seven times more likely to share fake news than those aged 18-29. Translation: as we age, the harder it becomes to undo disinformation sharing and consumption.

Misinformation on social media is particularly pernicious when supported by “data” that’s been manipulated or is presented in misleading ways. On social networks, the reach and effects of information-spread occur at such a fast pace and are so amplified that distorted, inaccurate or false information acquires a tremendous potential to cause real-world impacts, within minutes, for millions of users.

By taking a look at social media data, users can decipher misinformation in real-world contexts and play their part in slowing the spread of misinformation online. Vaccines are just the latest front in the COVID misinformation battle, which has highlighted the critical and urgent need for data literacy skills.

So in trying to find the best place to start chipping away at the impact of data-driven misinformation, the answer seems to be to start young, start in schools, and coalesce policymakers, educators and industry to strengthen data literacy.

Creating lifelong learners via data literacy

So what is data literacy? It’s the ability to consume, interpret and understand data to better make sense of everything around us. It’s not just looking at numbers in a spreadsheet. It’s being able to face a tidal wave of data knowing you have the skills and tools to navigate it and make decisions with confidence.

A data literate population is filled with lifelong learners of every age who turn to data to understand complex problems and answer difficult questions. The ability to understand information through numbers, charts and graphs is not something that can happen on its own for many people, which is why there is a growing need for educators to help students build data literacy skills—not only to separate fact from fiction but as an essential skill in today’s workforce.

Data literacy is no longer about interpreting data that appear in traditional print, broadcast and radio news outlets, and this is particularly true for college-aged students. Some 42% of U.S. adults 18-29 get their news often from social media, compared to 10% for adults 65 and older.

With the rise of influencers, Instagram and TikTok, it’s important for people to understand that a large number of followers does not equal credibility. If a famous person is making claims about lifestyle choices, personal health, etc., with or without data, those messages and data should be considered critically. People should validate claims independently, using reliable sources outside of social media.

How educators can advance data literacy

The fact is that building data literacy skills should start well before college. Nonprofit group Common Sense finds that less than half of kids agree they know how to tell fake news stories from real ones. Only about one in four kids who get news online think that news posted online is “very accurate.”

As students edge closer to entering the workforce, data literacy becomes more critical. During college, students’ ability to seed a career path will be guided by their ability to understand data and use it to make an impact on society. Data literacy at the college level should not be confined to statistics and social sciences but woven into programs across disciplines.

To help students become data literate we must acknowledge several core aspects of our data-driven world and the factors driving disinformation.

  1. Data is everywhere, nearly everything is digital and those digital things produce and consume data. Examples include chatbots, TV show recommendations, autonomous vehicles, fraud detection, job screening, medical imaging, social sentiment analysis and text message auto-complete, just to name a few. Awareness of how much data and data applications permeate our daily life is the first step toward data literacy.
  2. Nearly every person and activity in the world is producing data. From online activities, mobile device usage, personal health apps, home assistant and countless other things a person does, nearly all of it produces data for someone to analyze. These data sources are the input to processes that are generating value (e.g., products, decisions and actions) for someone or for some organization and for almost every single industry, job and market. People need to understand their roles as contributors and consumers of data.
  3. Students can be part of the digital transformation of the world. Through data science, machine learning and AI, students have the ability to compare complex data to the analogous normal cognitive abilities of pattern detection, pattern recognition and evidence-based decision-making.

There are many free data literacy courses and curricula that equip students, teachers, leaders and individuals with the data literacy skills needed to make sense of the data citizens encounter every day. Check out the resources offered by the News Literacy Project, which works with educators and journalists to give students the skills they need to discern fact from fiction and to know what to trust.

As young people navigate their lives in an increasingly data-driven world, the stakes are high for educators questioning how to arm them with critical analysis skills and head off the next generation of fake news purveyors. The answer lies in data literacy.

Lucy Kosturko is education initiatives manager at SAS, an analytics software developer that offers a free data literacy course, Data Literacy Essentials.