In a 1765 essay, written long before the Internet was a reality, Voltaire called out the importance of information as well as the power of persuasion. He said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Recent pop culture continues to echo this message. In the film Spider-Man, Uncle Ben instructs Peter Parker (Spider-Man) that “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Without question, information is more accessible today than ever before. It’s instantly available with the click of a mouse, the tap of a finger, or even the sound of a voice command. If you want directions, ask Siri. If you can’t remember the name of an actress in a movie, check Wikipedia. If you need to know how to wire a new electrical outlet in your garage, search YouTube. More information is freely available online than in all the libraries of the world combined. Information is power, and the Internet offers a great deal of it. In many ways, the Internet is like the superpower of modern times.
The Internet is also an amplifier of voice. It has given people the largest megaphone in history. With a few clicks, voices can be amplified, and information can be disseminated around the world. While the potential for good is overwhelming, the Internet does not differentiate between the good and bad. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for people to spread both useful information and harmful disinformation at record rates. Viral messages can inspire hope and raise people up, but they can also incite hate and cause division. Depending on how you look at it, this can either be exciting or terrifying. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed.
A constitutional federal republic like the United States depends on an informed electorate to effectively choose local, state, and national leaders. In this way, the Internet is both important and empowering. It allows voters to research the conditions of their state and country as well as the positions of candidates eligible for office. Of course, not all information is created equal. In addition to vast amounts of factually accurate content, voters will undoubtedly also encounter misinformation and, worse yet, disinformation, as they sift through the countless websites available online. While the internet can be incredibly liberating and empowering to those who previously did not have a significant voice, it can also be used as a bullhorn by those with ill intent. Most Americans agree that free speech is a bedrock of democracy. After all, it is called out in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. The question is: Do we have the skills to be able to discern the difference and separate fact from fiction?
As educators, this is our great responsibility—to make sure that our students become skilled and responsible navigators of information in the era of the Internet. In many ways, our democracy depends on it.
After all, our students will soon be voters themselves, and they are the future of our country. They will need to know how to find the most accurate information available, sort through the misinformation, and make informed decisions. To help them become critical consumers of information, we must teach them to cut through the bias, recognize tactics meant to persuade, and evaluate the credibility of sources. If our students can do those things, they can use the vast amount of information available to them to make important, informed decisions. For our democracy to thrive, our students—and future voters—need these skills.