Tracking down the facts

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On the internet, fake news can spread like wildfire through retweets, shares, and comments. It can often do serious harm to people. One group that particularly deserves protection against fake news: children and teens. An article from Dr. Thomas de Maizière, Chair of the “Deutsche Telekom Stiftung” foundation.

Girl with a notebook.

One group that particularly deserves protection against fake news: children and teens. (c) Weekend Images Inc./

Facts, facts, facts – if you lived in Germany in the 1990s, you probably remember this quotation by publisher Helmut Markwort. More recently, “alternative facts”, mentioned so often by members of the Trump administration, enjoyed brief popularity. And this is where the difficulty starts. Can there really be alternative facts if the definition of a fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true”? Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what has really happened or what is really true in a given situation. To find out, we search for evidence, information, sources for a claim or assertion. Digitalization hasn’t made this search any easier. While it’s true that people have access to more information and sources of knowledge than ever before, it’s also true that there is much more disinformation circulating than back in the day, when Encyclopedia Britannica and Webster’s Dictionary were often our first, most reliable sources of information. 

So how can you keep track? Fortunately, many services have arisen in the meantime that can help check the veracity of claims and information. Public broadcasting stations, for example, go to great lengths to check facts – not only for the written word, but also for the photos and videos that sometimes spread like wildfire over social media nowadays. Scholars also do a great deal to expose fake news as such and to impede pseudo-scientific publications. 

One group that particularly deserves protection against fake news is children and teens. Through our work at the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung, we know that more than 30 percent of all eight-graders are unable to correctly judge content they find online. Children and teens often find it difficult to rate the credibility of sources. So it’s no surprise that they often forward messages, photos, and videos without verifying them – and all too often violate personal privacy and/or spread untruths. In my opinion, this is an alarming development and I call upon adults to support young people on their way to digital competence. I’m talking about parents and teachers, as well as helpers at youth facilities, librarians, and coaches in sports clubs. As I see it, wherever digital media are used, we must teach critical thinking as well. The fact that teens can swipe objects from the digital world across their displays incredibly fast, but are not capable of classifying content correctly, is unacceptable. How can they be expected to form their own opinions on societal or political developments if they haven’t been taught assessment skills? This simply opens the floodgates for targeted disinformation. The spreading of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and election manipulation worldwide show where this path can take us.  

The Deutsche Telekom Stiftung is committed to teaching media skills to young people and we want to make a difference with our project “Qapito! – Assessing source credibility”. In a first step for this project, we have developed an online game, “Facts & Fakes”, which teaches children and teens how to debunk disinformation on the web in a playful manner. This will be followed in the fall of 2021 by learning materials for schools and other educational facilities, which we are currently developing together with two universities. Our credo: The ability to assess news and sources competently is essential to becoming a confident, self-determined part of the digital world. 


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