Combating Disinformation In Teaching And Learning

Combating Disinformation In Teaching And Learning

A look into how the education and training systems in Europe can attempt to cope with the surge of misinformation and disinformation.

The Main Players On The Field

The De Facto initiative is a non-profit endeavor that was already in the development pipeline 5 years ago. See, most efforts in trying to understand the harm that disinformation inflicts upon all social systems are centered on media and politics. True, the news cycle is the most vibrant part of the disinformation ecosystem. The research for De Facto recognized the work of the folks behind First Draft, later the High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation, and few initiatives such as the SOMA and EDMO observatories, and the multitude of fact-checkers popping up online, all exclusively focused on media and daily chatter.

The Missing Piece

With De Facto, we established that an important piece of the disinformation puzzle was still missing. Various scattered media literacy initiatives at schools and universities are mostly linked to critical thinking skills, which we believe only scratches the surface. We wanted to investigate in thorough detail the influencing process and the harmful impact of mis- and disinformation on teaching and learning. Therefore we started with developing a full-blown Disinformation Framework for Education and Training Contexts, supported by loads of case studies, thoughtfully curated eLearning resources and new tools. This is available in several languages already, free of any charge. Yet it is only a start, a structural foundation upon which we want to keep developing a solid practically-oriented approach and toolbox for educators and learners.

Enter Science

We based our work on long-held scientific postulates from the world of neuroscience, cognitive science, and cognitive linguistics, but sometimes had to resort to tangential scientific pathways (e.g., human evolutionary biology, in order to make sure we are on the right track). Though we are not scientists, we are pretty good at reading, and working with science.

Frames As Thinking Contexts

Frames are deep cognitive structures which we build and reinforce constantly. Frames help us navigate in a complex environment by providing valuable information of what elements, actors, and activities belong to a given frame (e.g. a school frame would typically include a building, teachers, training rooms with chairs and desk, online platform, multimedia projectors, interactive screens, learners, textbooks, exams, term papers, tuition, tutoring, etc.). When the brain meets a new instance of a known frame, this results in a physical reinforcement of the neural pathways for this frame, much like a muscle grows if you train it repetitively. The brain generally prefers to send information down larger pathways—as cars prefer highways to smaller roads. However, when the brain meets an instance of the frame where there is a conflicting element or an element not belonging there based on previous experience, then this new and dissonant information is mostly discarded. This is how we dismiss information that does not go hand in hand with our established beliefs.

Motivated Cognition

Motivated cognition is another interesting phenomenon. In simple terms, it provides an explanation to a range of situations: we tend to put more trust in those close to us (family and close friends), in celebrities, political or religious leaders, we react better to images than to text and better to video than to still images; we dismiss our own incompetence and attribute failures to external factors, but we give ourselves credit for positive outcomes. No doctor or lawyer considers themselves a bad doctor or lawyer, at least not in public admission. Motivated cognition works by "injecting" motivator elements into a situation, which is then considered in a different light.

Systemic Causality

Systemic causality is a term which describes complex chains of cause and effect, resulting in a single outcome. By definition, the complex chain is not observable, which provides ample grounds for simplification on really intricate matters such as climate change. Now, we know that our brain is not wired to learn from things it cannot observe—at least until later in life where the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. But this is not sufficient, the brain has to be taught to actively seek for those hidden links, and take them into consideration. We usually like to exemplify systemic causality with an Ishikawa fishbone diagram, where lots of factors contribute to a concrete event. The good news is that the brain can indeed be taught to do this. The brain needs to be put in a situation where systemic causality is present, this situation needs explaining and unraveling and as a result, the brain becomes more aware of the existence of hidden, not directly observable cause-and-effect chains.

Equivalency And Emphasis Frames

Equivalency and emphasis frames are two distinct types of frames. With equivalency, we have two statements that are identical—logically and mathematically. The exact wording of the statements however is able to change opinions or decisions. People prefer a path of action which saves 50% of a given group of 100 people from certain death but are reluctant to give consent for an action which will kill 1/2 of the group, though this is mathematically identical. With emphasis frames, people put emphasis on specific words or other information elements (e.g., a red circle marking an object on a CCTV video), and when emphasis is present, it takes cognitive precedence and becomes the main message, often leading to the brain outright rejecting other elements which are not on focus.


We were lucky to be able to explore the subject. We are now even happier, as we see how schools start to implement our approach and structured training interventions to combat disinformation in teaching and learning. We provide support to investigative journalists by adding insights into the exact mechanism of manipulation or disinformation, thus raising fact-checking and source-checking to a new level. Now the next steps for us will be to adapt the method, which is now targeted at 16+ and adults, for learners aged 11-12. We develop a new initiative on cognitive biases and their possible management and mitigation by educators. We stick by the science. And we see results.