Learning how students and teachers at American acquire their information and evaluate the accuracy of their information regarding the Ukraine-Russia crisis
Over the last several decades, the world has watched as major global powers have taken shape and taken sides. Sometimes, it happened silently, through the alliances and friendships that didn’t play out on the front page. Other times, it was an eruption: death and war that became the subject matter of the world’s conversations. We are currently seeing an eruption take place, a culmination of a century long struggle between two countries with clashing ideas.
February 24, 2022 marked the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Russia’s military pressure had begun months prior, in October of 2021. While there was no official explanation for Russia’s military troops moving slowly towards the Ukraine-Russia border, satellite images and social media publicly broadcasted it through November and December.
A list of demands was issued by the Russian foreign ministry, calling for the stop of NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe, specifically in Ukraine. The United States and NATO refused to meet the demands and threatened severe economic sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine. Over the next three months, Russia started to prepare for the invasion, as the US started sending additional military assistance to Ukraine.
When Putin ordered troops to separatist regions near Russia’s shared border with Ukraine, the United States and other western countries responded by fulfilling their threat, and imposing sanctions. On February 24th, Putin officially announced a full scale invasion of Ukraine, wanting to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.” Although there have been talks of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, fighting persists.
In our city of Fremont, 6,000 miles away, there have been no evident signs of war for the majority of our population. But students and teachers at American alike have started to reflect on another significant aspect of war: media consumption.
Mr. Elam, a history teacher at American with a journalism degree as well, shares his initial reaction to the invasion. “I had anticipated it happening for several weeks, but I was surprised to see how quickly things progressed in the first like eight hours. I watched [Putin’s] broadcast within a few minutes of it coming out, and then I literally stayed up all of Wednesday night. Through tracking, I found a bunch of Twitter accounts of people who were in Ukraine that were reporting on it. I basically did nothing but stare at the screen and follow everything that was happening for the first 12 to 16 hours of the invasion.”
It’s apparent that technology has substantially influenced the way the world is watching the war unfold. Social media, as in Mr. Elam’s case, has been especially useful in gathering information about the crisis.
Agastya Gaur (11) shares, “One advantage [of social media] is that you can hear about things much faster. Sometimes if you’re just relying on news, you have to actively go out and watch the news or look for things to realize what’s happening, but on social media you’re basically getting constant updates on what’s going on.”
Kavya Dhupar (11) adds that with social media, “You can actually see firsthand of things happening, and I think that’s so much more visceral to see than just learning about it.”
Mr. Elam shares a similar sentiment as Dhupar, commenting that he receives that first hand information directly from people in Ukraine. “On Twitter, I follow independent Ukrainian reporters and social activists that are basically just summarizing events that are happening and showing live footage.”
This gathering of hands-on information about the war can help students and teachers steer away from the negative implications of utilizing social media as a resource, with one of those implications being false information.
Gaur comments, “If you aren’t aware of how much misinformation there is on social media, you can easily be fooled pretty easily.”
Mr. Elam adds to this idea, explaining, “All warfare is based on deception. It’s about manipulating information. Everything is filtered through some level of bias; it’s pretty much impossible to find something that’s not.”
It can be especially difficult to avoid bias in newspapers, in comparison to social media, because of additional commentary and analysis. In such a highly polarized climate like the one we live in now, news publications are always finding a way to serve an ulterior purpose.
Gaur confirms this notion, sharing, “I think newspapers like the New York Times and Reuters are to be taken with a grain of salt because they inherently are biased towards America and NATO. So I also get a lot of my news from more leftist sources like Politsturm and redfish.”
Although leftist sources, like the ones Gaur mentions, also contain a significant amount of bias, Gaur explains, “I don’t like relying specifically on one news source of a single bias because it’s not great to just take news from a solitary source. I instead try to look over all the different types of news sources.”
Mr. Elam takes a different approach and tries to look for news sources with as little bias as possible. “The only news outlets that I follow are the Associated Press and NPR because I think those are the only two that are as close to neutral as possible here in the United States. I also prefer international news outlets like the BBC and Al Jazeera.”
It’s certainly a tedious task for students to navigate bias and misinformation, especially when they are trying to learn information as fast as possible. Dhupar admits, “It’s a problem because articles are great to learn about for in-depth stories and background, but there’s obviously bias there. For social media, it’s sometimes like you get the info and you go, but you can also be misinformed at times.”
So how do students go about avoiding misinformation in both newspapers and social media? The answer to that question is centered around cold hard facts, according to Mr. Elam. “One easy way is to identify evaluative words in articles or stories. Even words like ‘very’ are descriptive words, and as soon as you see words like that, it’s already an opinion. So just looking at raw data, raw statistics, and original footage is really, really important.”
Mr. Elam further believes that it’s “up to the history teachers” to give the students the tools to navigate media. “My class is very skills focused. So we focus a lot on critical thinking and asking, ‘is this source bias or not?’”
Dhupar, a student of Mr. Elam, corroborates this, saying, “Mr. Elam presents the information in a way that filters out all the unnecessary background information that I have to go through which saves me a lot of time. Also, each time before class, he scopes out five minutes for everyone to talk about their news stories.”
This is something that “is not hard for history teachers to do,” according to Mr. Elam because it aids students in a better understanding of the news. “We live in a very liberal echo chamber here in the Bay Area. I don’t think that that’s a surprise to anybody. So learning from different news sources and utilizing the tools [around us] is important.”
As the Russia-Ukraine war advances, it is clear that the skills and strategies that Mr. Elam, Gaur, and Dhupar highlight will become even more relevant. This is without doubt because of the role the media has played in the progression of past events.
Over the last century, through the major wars and conflicts that played out on the global stage, world powers have repeatedly stocked their arsenals with nuclear warfare and WMDs, while the rest of the world has been left with only one very significant weapon to yield: the media. It’s up to the students and teachers of the American High community to continue to learn and reflect on how to utilize this weapon.
Mr. Elam emphasizes, “We have to use the media as a starting point for bigger and better conversation.”