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“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late”

Political Lying by Johnathan Swift (1710)

A functioning democracy is sustained by healthy, constructive debate about both the issues facing our nation and what policies we should implement to deal with them. However, it’s near impossible to engage in constructive debate if we can’t agree on a common set of facts. That’s why the results of a 2019 study from Stanford History Education Group, Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: A National Portrait were so disturbing.

Researchers gave a six-exercise assessment to national sample matching the demographic profile of high school students in the United States, in order to gauge students’ ability to evaluate digital sources on the open internet.

What they found has grave implications for the future:

  • Fifty-two percent of students believed a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries (the video was actually shot in Russia) constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the U.S. Among more than 3,000 responses, only three students tracked down the source of the video, even though a quick search turns up a variety of articles exposing the ruse. 
  • Two-thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and ads (set off by the words “Sponsored Content”) on Slate’s homepage.
  • Ninety-six percent of students did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility. Instead of investigating who was behind the site, students focused on superficial markers of credibility: the site’s aesthetics, its top-level domain, or how it portrayed itself on the About page.

The inspiration for my novel Deepfake (Scholastic Press, 2020) came as a result of two careers I had on my journey to becoming a YA novelist:  a technology analyst and a journalist. From being an analyst, I learned to look at new technology with a critical eye. As a journalist I tried to uncover and write about the truth, in order to hold elected officials accountable. Accountability is another important foundation of democracy. If we don’t see accountability throughout our justice and political system, we start to lose confidence in our democratic institutions.

When I started reading about deepfakes several years ago, I started to wonder and worry: What happens when advances in technology make it increasingly difficult to know what is true and what isn’t?

In the novel, someone creates a deepfake that purports to show Dara claiming that her boyfriend Will cheated on the SAT, which impacts not only their relationship, but could cause Will’s admission to an elite college to be rescinded.

The characters are forced to use research, reasoning, and analysis —skills our students need to be successful in the 21st Century workplace, and which I see lacking in far too many young people on the college level—in order to solve the mystery of who created the deepfake and why. A teaching guide with discussion questions and activities is available here.

Fiction allows readers to experience the emotional effects of technology and social media along with the characters. It helps them connect things they might have heard about on the news or seen posted online with the how it might impact their lives.

What I wasn’t trying to do with Deepfake is “teach kids a lesson,” a mistake often made by newbie kidlit writers. I know I don’t have all the answers. I’m only human, and I’m as fallible as the next person.

What I do hope to achieve with my storytelling is to encourage young people to think critically about different questions.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash   

Why is this so important? Because it’s their present and their future that’s being shaped by technology platforms and the misinformation that’s spreading on them even more rapidly than the Covid-19 virus traveled across the globe.  

A recent example involves misinformation regarding the Covid-19 vaccines. A study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a not-for-profit NGO that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation, analyze a sample of anti-vaccine content that was shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter a total of 812,000 times between 1 February and 16 March 2021. Researchers found that 65% percent of anti-vaccine content was attributable to merely twelve accounts, which the center christened “the Disinformation Dozen.”

Once we’ve encouraged kids to think about the questions, our job as educators isn’t to tell them the answers, but rather to empower them to search out the solutions themselves.

That’s why I was so excited that Cindy L. Otis’s excellent non-fiction book True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News came out a few months before Deepfake. Cindy’s book should be in every middle and high school classroom library. This might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not, I assure you.

Cindy spends several chapters discussing the history of fake news, and acknowledges that her former employer, like most intelligence agencies, has employed it for influence campaigns. The best part of her book is that it provides practical solutions that young people can employ right away, enabling them to become part of the solution to our fake news infodemic, rather than part of the problem.

Educators, students, and the general public alike can benefit from the excellent resources provided by The News Literacy Project, a non-partisan national education non-profit dedicated to information literacy. I’m a big fan of their newsletter, The Sift, which provides up to the minute examples of misinformation to share with students.

It’s critical that we get young people thinking about these questions and help them learn the tools they can use to spot and evaluate fake news. As Peter Adams, the senior vice president of education at NewsLiteracyProject said in an interview with CT Public Radio: “If they can’t differentiate between something that’s true and something that’s false, they can’t make good decisions for their lives, for their families, for their futures and for the country.”

Meet the author

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of middle-grade and young adult novels. As well as writing novels, Sarah is an instructor in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University and leads the Children’s and YA section at the Yale Writers’ Workshop.


website: sarahdarerlittman.com

Twitter and Instagram @sarahdarerlitt

About Deepfake by Sarah Darer Littman

What happens when anyone can make a video of you saying anything?Dara Simons and Will Halpern have everything they’ve ever wanted. They are the rulers of Greenpoint High’s geekdom, overachieving in every way, and it’s an intense competition to see who will be valedictorian. One the entire school is invested in. That is, until Rumor Has It, the anonymous gossip site, posts a video of Dara accusing Will of paying someone to take the SAT for him.

When the video goes viral, suddenly Will’s being investigated, and everyone’s wondering how he pulled off cheating on the SAT. But Dara swears that she didn’t say any of those things, which seems a little hard to believe since it’s her in the video.

Did Will cheat? Is it Dara saying he did? Who’s lying, and who’s telling the truth? The answer is more shocking than anyone realizes…

ISBN-13: 9781338177633
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Age Range: 12 Years

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