Since 2015, the French government has increased funding for courses about the downsides of the online world. About 30,000 teachers and other educational professionals receive government training on the subject every year. In some places, the local authorities require young adults to complete an internet literacy course to receive welfare benefits, such as a monthly stipend.
The French Culture Ministry has doubled its annual budget for the courses to 6 million euros (about $6.8 million), and the Education Ministry is adding an elective high school course on the internet and the media to the national curriculum, making it available to thousands of students. Some educators are calling for the courses to be mandatory, taught alongside history and math.
“The younger you start, the better,” said Serge Barbet, who heads Clemi, the main program within the Education Ministry coordinating the effort. “That’s why we’ve been pushing for more media education in recent years. It’s become a vital need and a threat.”
The efforts have taken on new urgency after the most recent American and French presidential elections were targeted by Russian misinformation campaigns, and after the spread of conspiracy theories in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. Violent protests across France over income inequality in recent weeks have also been organized through Facebook and other online platforms, where misleading posts or distorted videos were “liked” and shared thousands of times.
Outside France, internet literacy programs are also growing, but have largely been left to groups, such as the News Literacy Project in the United States, that are funded by foundations and companies like Facebook and Google. European Union officials this month called on countries in the bloc to expand education programs as part of a push against misinformation and election interference.
France’s centralized strategy is “quite unique” and “absolutely noteworthy,” said Renee Hobbs, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in media literacy.
Ms. Laffont, a journalist for Agence France-Presse in Lyon, became involved in the effort after she co-founded an organization called Entre Les Lignes, or Between the Lines, in 2010. The group taught students about journalism, but evolved to include social media and internet misinformation.
The government points to Ms. Laffont’s program as a model and has provided an annual injection of tens of thousands of euros since 2017 to help it grow. Now 155 journalists volunteer, including many from Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, and the group held about 500 workshops with students this year.
Ms. Laffont keeps lessons simple. She incorporates Twitter and YouTube, and shares links to websites that students can use as references to check facts. She also explains the basics of how journalists gather and confirm facts, hoping that may help reverse some students’ mistrust of the media, as well as help them develop a more critical eye for what they see online.
“We realized that we had to go back to the fundamentals before even mentioning fake news and conspiracy theories: what’s news, who makes it, how do you check the sources,” Ms. Laffont said.
“It’s your role to sort things out online,” Ms. Laffont told the students
There is little research to gauge whether these lessons work. Technology trends move fast, and courses can quickly become outdated. Even basic infrastructure can be a problem: Before the class at the Henri Barbusse middle school, teachers struggled to get the internet access working.
Guillaume Chaslot, a French engineer who helped develop YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, said the efforts were worthwhile but wondered how effective they would be against Facebook and Google. Their algorithms put a priority on engagement, he said, meaning false and sensationalistic content from questionable sources can spread quickly.
“I don’t think you solve the problem with these trainings,” Mr. Chaslot said. “The power is the platforms. It’s a mismatch.”
But educators said the workshops helped people realize they must take responsibility for their online behavior, particularly in lower-income areas where young people are more vulnerable.
At a recent internet literacy workshop outside Paris, students were asked to write their own false news article. One participant paused as he finished a post that exaggerated police brutality, realizing many of his friends would believe it.
“That’s so scary,” said the student, Faycal Ben Abdallah, 20.
“Many young adults don’t look for news today — they just come across it,” said Baptiste Larroudé-Tasei, a community worker at Groupe SOS in Paris who specializes in prevention of radicalization. “If all of a sudden they are interested in something, they feel a need to learn more about it without always knowing how to do it properly.”
At the Henri Barbusse class, most of the 24 students came from housing blocks in Vaulx-en-Velin, a predominantly low-income neighborhood with a large immigrant population. On that Wednesday, Ms. Laffont began by asking the teenagers if they used Facebook. No hands went up.
“Facebook is for old people,” one student shouted, followed by laughter. They said they favored Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. (Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp.)
Yacine Saidi, 14, discussing the topic with a classmate at the
Henri Barbusse middle school
Most of the students came from a predominantly low-income
neighborhood with a large immigrant population
Some students said that the class was helpful, but that they weren’t sure how they would apply the new information.
Yacine Saidi, 14, who spends most of his internet time on YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, said the class should be longer. “I’m not sure how useful it can be when I’m back home on my phone,” he said.
A group of girls including Ms. Houbiri said they mainly got their news from Snapchat and YouTube. “We’re not aware enough of how journalists work, how fake news is created or why such or such thing lands in our social media feeds,” Ms. Houbiri said. “School can be the place where we become more aware of all this.”
Then the lunch bell sounded, and the two-hour class drew to an end. Ms. Laffont was energized by the teenagers’ engagement and interest.
“It’s your role to sort things out online,” she told them. “Be attentive to all the subtleties we’ve seen today.”
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