We want our students to think critically about the sites on the internet. We want them to think critically about the information shared online, and make sure that the information is bias free. Particularly when conducting research. Perhaps most important, we want students to not be swayed into rhetoric that is damaging or dangerous to themselves or others.
This is where Critical Literacy comes into play. It is important to make sure that in our digital age, we are still helping our students to be caring, compassionate and have awareness of others and our planet. But what happens when we are tricked into believing that a website is fair and equitable?
Sites like the ‘House Hippo’, or the ‘Tree Octopus’, and many more, have been used with many students, especially younger students, to demonstrate that not all sites on the web are what they appear to be. This is a great starting point.
However, often that which we are trying to understand are not this clear cut. There is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer when it comes to teaching our students. On the other hand, many of us are unaware of how to determine if the messages we are receiving are meant to confuse us by describing them in terms of ‘good character’ and good values. There are very complex websites online that represent hate, racism, and use advertising ploys to manipulate readers and researchers. Even white supremacist sites can be cloaked as civil rights websites. Our students need to understand when they are being manipulated into using and believing information for learning purposes, and beyond. Our students also need the opportunity to figure out the messages for themselves, and not merely be told what is correct or incorrect.
Daniels (2009) discussed these sites as ‘Cloaked Websites’. They indeed look legitimate, but are not equitable, fair, nor do they promote compassion and awareness of key issues in society. Cloaked Websites are full of propaganda, advertising, politics and cyber-racism that converge together in new ways. However, they are cloaked in messages and values that our very schools promote. How will we teach our students to separate facts from political gaslighting? Marketing ploys? Racism cloaked as human rights? How do we help students understand through a social justice lens?
This is very difficult for adults, let alone young impressionable minds to make sense of.
Cloaked sites rely on the naivete of their target audiences. It is easy for our young impressionable minds to stumble upon these sites, and even harder to understand alternate agendas besides learning. It is difficult for adults too.
Here are examples of a cloaked website:
www.teenbreaks.com – Presents itself as a neutral site, but is actually pro-life propaganda.
www.forwalmart.com/about – manipulating customers into ignoring criticisms, and viewing them favourably to continue spending money.
www.canadianvalues.ca – Promoting a ‘Canadian Identity’ that excludes and oppresses.
I parsed out from Daniels (2009) some basic traits of ‘cloaked’ websites:
- Selective interpretations of information
- Unidentified ‘We’
- Distractions on the website that are not normally associated with the ‘agenda’ – meant to throw off the reader
- Consumer psychology at play with ‘catch phrases’ etc.
- Telling you that they have the ‘Real Truth’
- Legitimizing aspects ie., pop quizzes, rap lyrics that make them appealing to youth for instance
- mixed with political agendas, racism or others.
- Legitimate sources are added in to fool the reader
- They show up in the top 10 on Google
- The website ends with .org
- Authorship, Publisher, political affiliation – usually this information is not available OR
- Author is impossible to find out without going to an external website
- If Author is there, you have to scroll right to bottom which most web readers do not do
- They may give the appearance of grassroots support
- Have very convincing domain names
- Graphics could be similar or the same as other reputable sites
I would also be aware of political agendas that are not necessarily cloaked – they are legitimate – but still serving to ‘trick’ people to believing a side of the story that is damaging to a group or groups of people.
I can’t help but wonder how I can make critical literacy a bigger focus in my curriculum. How will we help students to evaluate the knowledge claims on any website? How does this extend to ideas? I am particularly concerned about vulnerable youth who perhaps lack self-esteem, or feel confused sexually, racially.
Indeed, at this day in age where our students are more likely to use Google than a Teacher-Librarian, and with serious issues of racism, homophobia, global warming, marketing ploys and political agendas of world leaders – and aspiring world leaders – we need critical literacy skills more than ever.
Where can we go to start this process of critical literacy skills?
Though we still need educated people to help legitimize websites, here is a list of some excellent sites of resources to help teach and learn about critical thinking and the web:
Please share if you have any great sites!
Daniels (2009) Cloaked websites: propaganda, cyber-racism and epistemology in the digital age. New Media & Society, 11, (5), 659-683.