Middlesex DA Marian Ryan Launches ‘Digital Citizenship Academy’ To Combat High Schoolers’ Consumption Of Fake News Online

Below is a press release from the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office:

WOBURN, MA — Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan recently announced the forging of a strategic partnership between her Office and the California-based Digital Inquiry Group (“DIG”) to create a “Digital Citizenship Academy”. The program will offer high schoolers in Middlesex County best-in-class, research-based critical thinking and reasoning training to both protect them from falling victim to online disinformation and misinformation — and to prepare them to become leaders in the restoration of our democracy.

“There is no question that truth itself is under sustained assault in our Nation today. Our democratic system of government is based on the assumption that citizens can accurately evaluate the world around them and then make reasoned judgments — by voting in their elections and otherwise — about how best to proceed as a society. Build into that assumption, however, is the premise that there is general agreement as to what constitutes the underlying facts. Tragically, and as President Biden pointed out in his National Address several weeks ago, the very notion of objective truth is now under both deliberate attack and unintentional decay — gravely threatening our democracy. Given this state of affairs, I fundamentally believe that I must, as an elected official serving during this frightening time in our history, do something concrete to ensure that our young people have the critical thinking skills they need to navigate the online information ecosystem so that we can protect democracy’s sacred and basic premises,” said District Attorney Ryan.

The Digital Citizenship Academy will be a first-of-its kind, traveling civic online reasoning course — taught by volunteer Assistant Middlesex District Attorneys to any Middlesex County-based high school or high school youth program interested in participating. Specifically, prosecutors will be trained to teach the award-winning Civic Online Reasoning curriculum. This six-session (fifty minutes each) program will teach students critically important skills such as how to fact check online claims; how to investigate clues bearing on a given website’s credibility, and how to optimize their online searching activities — all with the goal of ensuring that they neither come to believe nor disseminate any false or misleading online claims.

“A series of studies show that the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum helps students to make sense of the information that floods their screens. We are excited to collaborate with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office to provide students with the tools they need to effectively navigate online,” said DIG executive director Joel Breakstone.

Research is beginning to show that the consumption of online disinformation and misinformation can lead individuals and groups to commit violent acts in the “real world.” While the January 6th insurrection might be the most prominent example of this, there are many other incidents around the country which are being linked to the perpetrators’ sustained consumption of online lies.

“As the County’s chief law enforcement officer, I believe that the Digital Citizenship Academy will become a powerful tool for us to fight this growing public safety threat,” District Attorney Ryan continued. “I am very grateful to the Digital Inquiry Group for partnering with us. They offer an innovative and best-in-class curriculum and the citizens of Middlesex County deserve nothing less. While DIG may be located on the other side of our Nation, I am heartened by how closely aligned they are to our Office’s values. I and our volunteer Assistant District Attorneys cannot wait to open the figurative doors of our Digital Citizenship Academy.”

“Our mission is to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. To that end, we know it is necessary for our young people to be able to identify and dismiss fake news. To be a productive, caring, and responsible citizen, a child must be a contemplative, inquisitive, and informed citizen. This ground-breaking Academy will do just that and we’re so proud to partner with the Middlesex District Attorney on this initiative as she continues to implement exceptional programming in our communities,” added Adam Rodgers, CEO at Boys & Girls Clubs of Stoneham & Wakefield.

The Civic Online Reasoning curriculum, developed by Professor Sam Wineburg, DIG Executive Director Joel Breakstone, and colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group, builds on research that suggests that students can be misled by websites designed to mask hidden agendas.

The Digital Inquiry Group (DIG) is a new non-profit organization that equips young people to sort fact from fiction online.

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