By Adam Satariano and Elian Peltier
Sandra Laffont, a journalist who helps train teenagers to recognize online misinformation, recently led a workshop at Collège Henri Barbusse near Lyon, France. (Matthew Avignone for The New York Times)
VAULX-EN-VELIN, France — A group of teenagers recently entered a room at Collège Henri Barbusse near Lyon, France, for a class typically dedicated to learning Spanish. But on that day, an unusual lesson awaited them.
Five posts from Twitter were up on the board. The task: Decipher whether they were trustworthy or suspect.
The ninth graders focused on a post by the far-right politician Marine Le Pen related to a headline-grabbing incident in France when a teenager had threatened a teacher. One student said Ms. Le Pen’s post could be trusted because her account had been verified by Twitter. But Samia Houbiri, 15, said Ms. Le Pen simply wanted attention.
“She picks a topic, she exaggerates things, and then people will say, ‘She’s right, I should vote for her,’ ” Ms. Houbiri said.
Sandra Laffont, a journalist teaching the workshop, nodded and said, “Politicians may sometimes exaggerate reality because their goal is to convince people that their ideas are the right ones.”
The class was part of a novel experiment by a government to work with journalists and educators to combat the spread of online misinformation. France is coordinating one of the world’s largest media and internet literacy efforts to teach students, starting as early as in middle school, how to spot junk information online.
Since 2015, the French government has increased funding for courses about the downsides of the online world. About 30,000 teachers and other educators receive government training on the subject every year. In some places, the authorities require young adults to complete an internet literacy course to receive welfare benefits.
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 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.”
France saw the need for expanded media and internet literacy before many countries. In 2015, a deadly attack on the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo exposed a deep distrust of the media and vulnerability to conspiracy theories online.
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 about 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 growing, but have 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. This month, European Union officials called on countries in the bloc to expand education programs as part of a push against misinformation and election interference.
For her part, 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 explains the basics of how journalists gather facts, hoping that may help reverse some students’ mistrust of the media, and 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.
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 algorithms used by companies like Facebook and Google put a priority on engagement, 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.”
At a recent workshop outside Paris, students were asked to write their own false news article.
Faycal Ben Abdallah, 20,paused as he finished a post that exaggerated police brutality, realizing many of his friends would believe it.
“That’s so scary,” he said.