Calls for urgent change to school curriculums to teach students how to identify conspiracy theories, fake news

There are calls for an urgent change to school curriculums to teach students how to identify conspiracy theories and fake news.

With the pandemic fuelling the rise of disinformation, experts believe education could be key to reducing its threat.

The Parliament protest which ended in fire and fury was sparked in part by disinformation about COVID-19, and researchers found just 12 social media accounts were responsible for spreading most of the false information. 

"It is an urgent problem that we have to address. Other countries have seen the urgency and acted accordingly," said Stuart McNaughton, chief education scientific advisor.

Disinformation refers to the deliberate spreading of false information, while misinformation isn't necessarily intended to mislead. Tohatoha has been teaching students and librarians to spot both and question what they see online.

Tohaohas CEO Mandy Henk said people need to analyse content when they see it.

"Who is behind the information, what is the evidence, and then what do others say." 

The not-for-profit organisation uses education to combat the spread of misinformation around COVID-19.

"It has a real impact on people's daily lives when they watch a loved one, or a young person they know, fall down that rabbit hole," said Henk.

Tohatoha received funding during the pandemic. It runs 10-week programmes with 24 schools per term, but its funding is set to run out.

"As of right now, we won't be carrying out any education in terms one and two or beyond that," said Henk.

  • Do you have a related story? Send an email to Alexa Cook in confidence at

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the issue is on her radar.

"The assurance I can give is that I am looking into it. I don't have a solution yet but I'm trying to work on one," said Tinetti.

There are calls for that "solution" to go even further because while there are critical thinking skills in New Zealand's curriculum, experts said it needs to be embedded across all subjects and ages to prevent Kiwis from falling down the misinformation rabbit hole.

"We can reduce the likelihood and probability that that will happen if we have a really robust educational response," McNaughton said.

The minister wants to see more consistency in the curriculum.

"We have a world-class curriculum at the moment, but a lot is left up to the discretion of the schools in what they are teaching and how they are teaching," Tinetti said.

It's different in Finland, rated Europe's most resistant nation to fake news. Identifying misinformation is taught in Finland's primary and secondary schools across all subjects.

Finnish teacher Kari Kivenin is working with the EU's expert group tackling disinformation and promoting digital literacy. He said critical thinking is entrenched in their education system.

"They are learning to be critical, to be analytical, they are learning to justify why this site is not as reliable as another site."   

However, misinformation experts here said Finland's education model can't just be replicated in Aotearoa as we have a number of different types of schools and kuras, and our curriculum is not as standardised as theirs.

"My worry is that we need to make sure we are consistent in this, that is across all schools we're able to do this to a very good level of efficiency and effectiveness," said McNaughton. 

To ensure it is consistent, the Associate Education Minister has been to Finland to see their system for herself.

"I saw young people that were defaulting to asking, 'Is this true'."

She's promising critical thinking will be ingrained in the 'curriculum refresh' that's underway at the moment. 

"It is really urgent and we're putting some criticality behind this right now. We're looking at some of those skills being tested over the next year."

Critical thinking skills that will hopefully prevent history from repeating itself.