Students are ‘learning’ about Israel-Hamas from TikTok. We must step up

Gen Z students need immediate, practical courses in how to distinguish fact from opinion and assess online sources’ credibility, says Eli Gottlieb

December 18, 2023
TikTok icon logo displayed on a smartphone with disinformation on screen  in the background to illustrate Students are ‘learning’ about Israel-Hamas from TikTok. We must step up
Source: Getty Images

The pile-on that led the University of Pennsylvania’s president, Elizabeth Magill, to resign following her embarrassing evasions the previous week at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism, was understandable. But it misses the point.

The problem isn’t the cowardice or selectively applied anti-discrimination policies of a particular president or university. It’s not even toleration of students and faculty who abuse university platforms to justify terrorism. The root problem is that universities have long been derelict in their first duty: namely, to teach students how to be responsible consumers and producers of knowledge.

Demonstrations on campus since the Hamas attacks in October have been characterised less by physical violence or intentional incitement than by displays of shocking ignorance. Students call for Palestine to be free from the river to the sea, but few know which river or which sea. They shout about oppression and genocide without considering how such terms might apply to the Hamas regime they seek to defend. This isn’t because they’ve been brainwashed by woke faculty. It’s because they get their news and opinions from Reddit, TikTok and Instagram

Since you’re reading this rather than thumbing through TikTok, you might not appreciate just how bad things are out there on social media. Much of the misinformation to which today’s undergraduates are exposed comes not from AI-generated deepfakes or even from “cheapfakes” that repurpose video from other sources into propaganda about the current conflict. It comes, instead, from talking head videos by Gen Z influencers, who state as fact mixes of opinionconspiracy theory and specious analogy. The worst thing about such influencers is not that they make claims that are wrong but that they make no attempt whatsoever to base their claims on evidence.

Professors can’t improve the quality of what influencers say on social media, but they can influence how students consume it.

Universities aren’t governments; no one needs their statements on foreign policy. Nor is it their job to defend free speech or to protect minorities from racist violence: these are matters for law enforcement. Universities have one job, which is to educate. And Gen Z students are in desperate need of education. 

Many of my fellow professors agree. But they fear it’s impossible to educate students about the Israel-Hamas war without stirring up further controversy or, worse, being cancelled. Their fears are warranted. When history, geography and politics are this contentious, it’s hard to teach anything of substance that won’t put you on someone’s blacklist. 

To this I have two responses. First, grow up. If you can’t teach in ways that aren’t partisan or you don’t have the courage to take on entitled students, choose another profession. Second, tackle the medium, not the message. More than Israel-Palestine 101, Gen Z students need practical courses in how to distinguish fact from opinion and how to assess an online source’s credibility.

I’m a professor of cognitive psychology. I study how people’s identities affect how they judge credibility online. For over a decade, I also directed an institute in Jerusalem whose faculty and students comprised Jews and Arabs from across the political spectrum, ranging from settlers to anti-occupation activists. My research and professional experience have taught me two things. First, when people from opposing sides are brought together to jointly evaluate controversial claims, they pay closer attention to the evidence and are readier to revise their prior assumptions. Second, to lead a pluralist institution of higher learning through periods of political unrest requires the courage sometimes to suspend business as usual and to face the burning educational challenge of the day. 

Current campus unrest is one such teachable moment. Instead of playing defence, university presidents should launch a “counteroffensive” of their own. They should suspend regular classes for a full day and replace them with compulsory crash courses in online literacy, in which contentious claims about the Israel-Hamas conflict are fact-checked jointly by students and faculty with opposing views. 

Most universities have faculties with the expertise to create courses of this kind at short notice and the sociological and disciplinary diversity to minimise bias in their design and implementation. Sure, making this happen would entail much administrative arm-twisting and herding of professorial cats. But isn’t that precisely what university presidents are hired to do?

In short, the crisis in which university presidents now find themselves also presents them with an opportunity to re-commit to their core educational mission and to teach students skills of online literacy vital for democracy in the digital age. They have the power to do so. Do they have the courage?

Eli Gottlieb is a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University and an adviser to government and non-profit organisations on leadership and strategy.

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Reader's comments (6)

TikTok is better than Australian universities.
Shlomo Sand, _The Invention of the Jewish People_. Come to Mastodon - we have postings by Al Jazeera, UNWRA, MAP, MSF etc to counter the media time allocated to Hotoveley and Regev.
I’m torn on this one. I suspect people are, in general, intellectually lazy. If their views seem to jive with those around them, they are happy enough. Social media enables people to find voices that echo their own bias and prejudice. We can all be guilty of this comforting laziness at times. Social media also fundamentally changes communication - it is not a true real-time dialogue for a start. I suspect that individuals will say things on-line that they would not say out loud in a conversation. By its nature, social media also places less emphasis on listening - the most important part of difficult conversations. So, what inecentive do we offer to encourage folks away from the comfort of opinion and towards the pain of thought and effort?
This whole article smacks of 'why are young people not as clever as my superior generation'. There is a lot of evidence that actually the age group most susceptible to online fakery are over 65s.
Both Jewish and Muslim students will have predictable biases here based on their backgrounds, it is those of us who come from neither heritage or faith who are often remarkably ignorant of the facts, never mind the background to the prejudices displayed by those closer to the dispute. Did you know, for example, that the patch of land known today as the Gaza Strip was originally the homeland of the Philistines? It never has been a part of Israel, not even in Biblical times. It's easy to sound off based on our prejudices. We all need to find out more about how the situation came to be if we want to be in a position to make meaningful commentary.
No! Not a particular course. But all courses must teach critical reading of all sources. But why does the author's own website describe him as a "cultural psychologist" and not "a cognitive..."? And never call himself a "professor" We must all read critically