About five years since the war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists began, triggering a surge in propaganda and disinformation, some students in four cities across the country are learning how to better assess what they're reading, seeing and hearing.
A report released Friday by global education organization IREX says that students in 8th and 9th grades were better able to identify false information and hate speech after teachers integrated the organization's media literacy techniques into their lessons.
Students were twice as likely to detect hate speech and 18 percent better at identifying fake news than students who missed out on those lessons, according to the report.
The Listen to Discern program, funded by the U.S. and U.K. embassies in Ukraine, was tested in 50 schools, including in the eastern city of Mariupol which saw major fighting in the war's first years.
A group of fact checkers, journalists and teachers wove the training into some 15 existing lesson plans.
Teachers didn't all include the same techniques in their programs. Between September and December 2018, students might have analyzed the implications of word choices in a Ukrainian literature class, or study doctored videos in their art classes — and they might not have even realized they were receiving media literacy training.
"We go into how a given photo could be taken from a movie and then with captions be altered to represent a certain situation or conflict," Mehri Druckman, IREX's country representative in Ukraine, tells NPR. Students were taught how to check and double check images that could have been manipulated, she adds. "Sometimes it would be as simple as understanding how to do a reverse image search, or if we have time, to go into photo forensics."
IREX says that kids who received the modified lessons performed better in all media-analysis skills, such as distinguishing facts and opinions, identifying hate speech, and noticing where information had been omitted.
Girls gained more knowledge than boys. "The girls did better at separating fact from opinions, on news media knowledge and on analysis skills," says Druckman. "Why is that? We're trying to understand that more deeply ourselves."
IREX plans to do further research to try to understand the better performance by girls.
One open-ended survey question, posed to students as the semester concluded, inspired teachers, she said. It asked kids to describe the most memorable lesson of their semester and why. Students most often referred to lessons that had been injected with media literacy education.
Still, IREX's head of Media and Information Literacy Initiatives Katya Vogt says, "We are ten years too late."
The organization began Ukraine's Learn to Discern program in 2015, after Russia's annexation of Crimea. Staff initially started teaching adults across the country how to detect disinformation and propaganda before turning to younger generations.
Druckman says that by 2021, the program will be used in approximately 650 schools across Ukraine.
"Often places that are the most vulnerable [to disinformation] are where large social divisions are being actively exploited by bad actors," Mike Caulfield, who is leading a national digital literacy initiative for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, tells NPR. That makes the training "more politically delicate."
Caulfield is not connected with the IREX initiative.
He says there is a risk that "folk knowledge about truth and authority on the Internet" gets passed down to younger generations. In his own experience, students struggle the most with assessing media, not when they lack a strategy, but when they apply bad strategies they've been taught.
As soon as teachers introduce digital tools to students in the classroom, they should begin teaching some digital strategies, Caulfield says. But there is a dearth of organizations coordinating such efforts in the United States, he adds.
More money should be spent on training teachers to integrate media and web literacy in their lessons, Caulfield says.
"The takeaway is, let's have a real national discussion about how to do this right in the United States."