Flying Penguins: On Fake News and Media Literacy

Did you know that there is one species of penguin that can fly?

I didn’t either, until Miss E. confidently informed me of this fact.

At first, I thought this was just some notion she imagined and didn’t think much of it. But then it was repeated whenever we talked about penguins (which happens surprisingly often). And repeated with the conviction from a 5-year-old who had learned a fact and just knew it to be the truth.

She is smart enough to know the difference between cartoons/ children’s stories and reality, so I knew she had to have been taught this in some place. And she was so convinced that I started to question myself…do penguins fly? Is there some new knowledge about penguins that I don’t have?  My world view was starting to crumble. Penguins, those birds known for being flight-less, can fly? So I went to the place most people go when they need a definitive answer…Google.

And I typed in flying penguin and was met with some surprising results from the BBC, a reputable news source, stating that, yes, penguins do in fact fly.

flyingpenguinsvideopenguinspeciesfly

And clicking on the video, it looks real. It’s a nature documentary, and there, right before my eyes, are flying penguins. (I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of the post if you want to see.)

Now, nestled between these two results, there was one more. flyingpenguinshoax

This one revealed that the video was a hoax, or an April Fools’ Day joke. Now, I, understanding how jokes work and that the BBC has a history of such things, had assumed this was probably the case when I saw the first two results. So I showed her the video and she said that, yes, that’s how she knew about it. But how did Miss E see this in the first place?

Well, it turns out that as part of an exploratory learning focus in kindergarten, students were encouraged to bring in animals, and the teachers would research the animals online and share information about them. And sure enough, one thing they saw was the video of flying penguins.

So I started to explain that, no, penguins can’t fly and this was just a joke video someone made. And her reaction?

Anger – anger that I was making fun of her. Anger that I was challenging what she said.

Now, maybe the teachers acted responsibly and told the class the video was a joke, but that didn’t translate to Miss E. What did is that penguins can fly, and she saw a  video of it, and she learned it at school, from someone in authority, from someone she can trust.

And I was telling her that she was wrong. I was telling her that her teachers – the people she trusts, and we trust, to provide knowledge – were wrong. Now I was shaking her world view. And she did not like it.

It, of course, doesn’t help that even if Miss E. was old enough to go to Google, she would not have necessarily found anything to correct the belief, but rather confirm it.

We were able to talk about it a bit more, and I showed her the other big BBC hoax, Spaghetti Harvest video, and I think she started to understand the situation. And later she asked if she could see more fake news stories. I haven’t asked if she still thinks penguins can fly.

And that’s how a reflection of the fake news phenomenon played out in our home. And I think it is a pretty good reflection.

Someone knows something, because they were taught it, or someone they trust shared their information. And this, often, already connects with something they believe, so it is easy to accept.

When presented with information to counter the idea, to provide context, or to give the right answer, the response is not initial acceptance. It’s anger. It’s denial. It’s the fear that they are being personally attacked.

And if they do more research, they may find further information to confirm it, as was available on Google.

So what’s the solution? Media literacy is a big part of it, taught from a very early age. With, perhaps, frequent reminders through life. Again, I don’t know how the video was framed when shown at school, so I am not going to blame the teachers for this. But it was a teachable moment for us that we worked through. And hopefully Miss E. has a better understanding that some things are presented as jokes. Or sometimes outright lies. And as has been discussed at length in the media, this is not a problem facing 5-year olds alone, but people the world over.

We have to take personal responsibility for it as well, and challenge it when we see it. I will, from time to time, be the annoying person who will try to clarify information, with sources, when forwarded an email filled with obvious lies, or a Facebook post with half-truths and misleading information. But often the response is as above. Anger. Denial. Or some reply like “Well, I didn’t actually believe what I posted/shared. I just thought it was interesting.” which is probably among the worst answers.

People will say they don’t have time to do the research to see if everything is real, or that it doesn’t really matter if they share something they are not 100% sure about. But it does matter. It matters to 5-year olds, and it matters to adults. It matters because knowledge is important. And the truth exists. Facts exist. Flying penguins do not.

I think there needs to be less information about flying penguins, and more about house hippos.

Advertisements