Teaching Digital Citizenship, Ethics and Morality

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The internet (as we know it, more or less) is now over twenty years old. It has supposedly brought the world to our fingertips. And in many ways it has. However, it is no different than any other tool: the user must know how to use it. In fact, tool is a poor analogy, for the most part. In fact, if the analogy of digital tools is used, the idea is limited to aspects of computer programs. Instead, the internet is more like a complex program, that we must use to manipulate our source material—like Photoshop. But it is also an extension of us, and this is too often forgotten in the ways people try to navigate the informational and social features of the internet. The internet actually mimics life, very often: people must sift through the information presented and respond accordingly, treating others appropriately and respectfully. This document outlines some ways to think about this and to convey it to high school students, so that they understand that digital citizenship, online ethics and appropriate behaviour online are very similar to citizenship, ethics and appropriate behaviour in the real world—in both, people want to make good decisions and put their best selves forward.

Good Decisions and Critical Thinking: Evaluating Websites and Not Believing Everything You Read

 The problem of determining the credibility of a website is not new. The Cornell University Library has an excellent page to help anyone do this. The first part of their criteria is objective and straightforward: authorship, currency and source. These can be determined through finding information on the site itself:

Who wrote the content?

Who is responsible?

When was the content last updated?

The second part is a bit more subjective and murky: accuracy and objectivity. Currency falls into this category too, because it must be determined if the content was last updated in a significant way or not. And it must be determined if that matters, if it current enough. To this end, a person must ask questions like:

Is the information correct?

Is the information cited true?

Is there bias, and is that bias clear or acceptable?

Can the author be trusted?

Can the responsible body be trusted?

Now, none of this information is new or groundbreaking. However, the need for students to do this has never been more pressing. Immediately following the 2016 U.S. election, the media asked wondered, did “fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?” The question will be asked for a long time and it will never be answered. But what is clear is that university students have difficulty telling the difference between fake news and real news, according to a Stanford University study.

So, the first thing to deal with here is the proliferation of fake news on social media. If these were websites without links to them, the problem would not be so extensive. But they are click-bait making the authors and responsible entities advertising revenue. Why?

The first reason is that the fake news comes from a like-minded place. Remaining with the political theme, if you are liberal, it is likely that you will side with a site like Occupy Democrats in the U.S.; if conservative, you might side with Breitbart. However, both of these sites do very poorly telling the truth, according to Politifact. Yet, both of these politically motivated sites have their stories shared on social media extensively. Why, because whether or not a person always thinks the story is true, it aligns with their beliefs. This is a problem: we need to ask ourselves if spreading misinformation is appropriate, even if the position in the story is one we agree with.

Another reason fake news is shared is that a person will socially benefit from the sharing of the story. According to Xinran Chen, people who share misinformation do so so that they can be responsible for the discussion that ensues on their feed. It is simply an opportunity for some attention.

Teaching Website Evaluation and Responsible Sharing

An appropriate lesson for these ideas would be to simply find at least one credible and one false story, and have students read and evaluate them. This can be done through any lens: social, political, sports, human interest. For example, a page from debatepost.com (a right wing, Albertan site) could be provided, with a contrasting story from a political party website (probably Liberal, NDP or Green) with similar information.

Have the students uncover the information slowly: headline; byline; content; position; bias; facts? This last part would involve actually checking a source or two. Debatepost is hyperbolic, politically positioned and unauthoritative. But so is any political party’s page. Ultimately, the best information will be found in the middle, in a story about the issue, written by a noteworthy news source—an authoritative and mostly trustworthy one.

Discussion questions around this could be as follows:

What does an authoritative and trustworthy source look like?

Are we swayed when we agree or disagree with the story?

When do we just trust that something is true?

What biases are evident—in both the story and us?

Why might we share a story?

Is the internet entertainment, or something more?

Why should we fact check memes?

Ultimately, a discussion could end up at the age old classic: what is truth? And while this is somewhat cliché to me, I think there is always a place to explore this idea with students and people. What is the difference between something we can know and something we believe? In an ultimately unknowable world and existence, we do in fact trust that some things are knowable and true. We must apply this idea to our actions in life and in our digital existences. We mostly default to good behaviour in our lives, so why would we not do the same online?

The People We Really Are: Online Ethics and Appropriate Behaviour

At the time of this writing, in our country, we are dealing with a seeming surge in racist, homophobic, xenophobic and misogynistic behaviour—in the world and online. Seeming surge is appropriate, because it cannot be known if these are growing feelings or a growing tendency to share these feelings. And it does not matter, because our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms outlines how we are in fact living in a pluralistic society where people have equal rights and, in theory, equal opportunities. That the equal opportunities part is not completely true might be because we have these prejudices in Canada and are not talking about them. Hence, this could be an opportunity—albeit a distasteful one, at times. Here is what we know: ignoring this problem and not talking about it will not help at all. So, the question is, how do we talk about it, in the real world, and online.

The Correlation Between the Real World and the Online World: What is Appropriate in Both?

How this is handled from a grade eight class to a grade twelve class is up to the teacher, and whether or not it fits in to a larger lesson. However, here is what we know: in general, Canadians recoil at the idea of overt, blatant racism, sexism, misogyny. So, it is best to start with examples of that. Sadly, we have all too many to choose from. Merely google these terms (sexist, racist) with rant and you will find examples. Add your city or a city nearby and you may get something closer to home—in more than one way. Choosing the right one is important; it is easy to find something that might disturb the students too much. At the same time, you want students to have a reaction and you want to have something that you can discuss. There are examples where passers by come to the defense of the person being “assaulted.” And there are examples of passers by not doing so. Both of these can generate significant discussion. After watching one of these videos, be careful in the questions you ask:

How did the person/people react?

Why do you think the person/people said the things they did?

How was each person feeling?

How do you think the people around were feeling?

Avoid neither demonizing nor validating the racist or sexist language. Instead, concentrate on how the language affected others, including themselves. For high school students, be ready to discuss the realities of different experiences for people: women and men experience the world differently; visible minorities experience the world differently. What we aim to do in our society is to accept people and make them feel accepted. And in our day to day interactions with people, I think that that is mostly true—especially in a diverse city like Vancouver, but I would argue in most of Canada.

With this work done, we move to online behaviour. Again, pull current examples from the internet. At this writing, I would choose a news story that somehow affects the students: education, their city/town; their school. For example, during the last teachers’ job action, there were many stories that prompted commenters online to post that the cost of education would be greatly reduced if we just segregated studenst with special needs and learning disabilities. In my school (a tight-knit community that generally looks out for one another), these comments would be viewed as very offensive by the group, and ignorant about what an inclusive educational experience is actually like for students. But for whatever you choose, the following questions can be asked:

What is inappropriate about these comments?

How do these comments make you feel?

How will these comments be viewed by people in the criticized group?

Do these comments reflect society as a whole?

What do you think about the person who made the comments?

So, at no point should the discussion digress into solely criticizing the commenter; we should acknowledge that this is not the whole person, and if we make judgements about them, we are falling into generalizations and prejudice, just like they did in the comments. Conversely, the idea that we might make judgements about them is part of the point we are making.

Hence, the next step is to illustrate how such comments can lead to consequences that are unforeseen. To this end, again pull examples from the news about people saying things on Facebook and Twitter that result in dismissals from jobs and elected positions. There are plenty of examples. There are also many discussions about the psychology of people who post negative comments online. These discussions of internet trolls focus on how the people who do this often feel a lack of power in their lives, and exercise power over others anonymously. This is food for thought for students.

There are many ways to make this all palpable for students. However, I would strongly recommend ways to share their own experiences online with positive and negative comments. Again, this is not about shaming anyone, but talking about the way people behave online and how they might behave better.

Where We Want to Be

The takeaway for students regarding all of this is that they want to be good people. One of the best ways for us to be better is to make thoughtful decisions based on some evidence. This means thinking about what we read and asking questions. It means that we do not always default to what we want to believe, but ask questions even when we encounter information that we agree with.

We must also be conscious that the internet removes responsibility sometimes. I do not think that we revert to some baser self that lurks inside of us. Instead, for most of us, we simply access a side of us without a filter. (Do not get me wrong here; some of the things people post are truly awful, aggressive, racist, sexist.) Making students feel badly about past behaviour will never help teach them to be better. However, helping them think about how their posts and comments affect others will help them be more empathetic.

Works Cited

Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. The Stanford History Education Group. Stanford University. 2016.

“Evaluating Web Sites.” Cornell University Library. Cornell University. 2016.

Roy, Jessica. “Want to keep fake news out of your newsfeed? College professor creates list of sites to avoid.” Los Angeles Times. 15 Nov. 2016.

Shellenberger, Sue. “Most Students Don’t Know When News is Fake, Stanford Study Finds.” Wall Street Journal. 21 November 2015.

Solon, Olivia. “Facebook’s Failure: Did Fake News and Polarized Politics Help Get Trump Elected?” The Guardian. Nov. 10 2016.



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