Critical Literacy

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Our students need us more than ever. Society needs us more than ever. Educators are key to teaching critical literacy.

We want our students to think critically about the world around them. We want them to think critically about all information shared through media, and make sure that the information is bias free. Particularly when conducting research. Particularly when voting leaders. Perhaps most important, we want students to not be swayed into rhetoric that is damaging or dangerous to themselves or others.

This is where Critical Literacy comes into play. It is important to make sure that we are still helping our students to be caring, compassionate and have awareness of others and our planet. But what happens when we are tricked into believing that a website is fair and equitable? Or worse, what happens when a leader tricks people into believing they are fair and equitable?

We have a serious problem on our hands. More than critical thinking, critical literacy is essential to ensuring we keep ourselves and others safe from hate speech and other damaging actions.

We start with our students.

In terms of the internet, sites like the ‘House Hippo’, or the ‘Tree Octopus’, and many more, have been used with many students, especially younger students, to demonstrate that not all sites on the web are what they appear to be. This is a great starting point.

However, often that which we are trying to understand are not this clear cut.  There are very complex media, messages and people that represent hate, racism, and use advertising ploys to manipulate readers and researchers.

Even white supremacist sites can be cloaked as civil rights websites. White supremacist leaders can be cloaked as civil rights activists.

People need to understand when they are being manipulated into using and believing information for learning purposes, and beyond.

Daniels (2009) discussed these sites as ‘Cloaked Websites’. They indeed look legitimate, but are not equitable, fair, nor do they promote compassion and awareness of key issues in society. Cloaked Websites are full of propaganda, advertising, politics, racism, misogyny, hate speech and more that converge together in new ways.

How will we teach our students to separate facts from political spoofs? Marketing ploys? Racism cloaked as human rights? Authoritarian leaders?

This is very difficult for adults, let alone young impressionable minds to make sense of.

‘Cloaking’ relies on the naivete of  target audiences. It is easy for our young impressionable minds to experience the messages, and even harder to understand alternate agendas.

In terms of online media, here are examples of a cloaked sites:

Breitbart – Website for Nationalism and Homophibia – Presents itself as a neutral site, but is actually pro-life propaganda. – manipulating customers into ignoring criticisms, and viewing them favourably to continue spending money. – Promoting a ‘Canadian Identity’ that excludes and oppresses.

And now all we need to do is look to world leaders and the messages they are cloaking for their own agendas.

I parsed out from Daniels (2009) some basic traits of  ‘cloaking’:

  • Selective interpretations of information
  • Unidentified ‘We’
  • Distractions that are not normally associated with the ‘agenda’ – meant to throw off the reader
  • Consumer psychology at play with ‘catch phrases’ etc.
  • Telling you that they have the ‘Real Truth’
  • Legitimizing aspects ie., pop quizzes, rap lyrics that make them appealing to youth for instance
  • mixed with political agendas, racism or others.
  • Legitimate sources are added in to fool the reader
  • They show up in the top 10 on Google
  • The website ends with .org
  • Authorship, Publisher, political affiliation – usually this information is not available OR
  • Author is impossible to find out without going to an external website
  • If Author is there, you have to scroll right to bottom which most web readers do not do
  • They may give the appearance of grassroots support
  • Have very convincing domain names
  • Graphics could be similar or the same as other reputable sites

I would also be aware of political agendas that are not necessarily cloaked – they are legitimate – but still serving to ‘trick’ people to believing a side of the story that is damaging to a group or groups of people.

How will we make critical literacy a bigger focus in our curriculum. How will we help students to evaluate knowledge claims on media? How does this extend to ideas? I am particularly concerned about vulnerable youth who perhaps lack self-esteem, or feel confused sexually, racially.

Indeed, at this day in age where our students are more likely to use Google than a trusted adult/educator. Our world continues to experience very serious issues of racism, homophobia, global warming, marketing ploys and political agendas of world leaders – and aspiring world leaders – we need critical literacy skills more than ever.

Where can we go to start this process of critical literacy skills?

Now more than ever perhaps we have to educate against stronger messages of hate coming from new world leaders.
We have an enormous job to do as educators. This job goes well beyond parsing out fake vs real websites.

Sites for educators to check out:

Though we still need educated people to help legitimize websites, here is a list of some excellent sites of resources to help teach and learn about critical thinking and the web:

Please share if you have any great sites!

Deborah McCallum


Daniels (2009) Cloaked websites: propaganda, cyber-racism and epistemology in the digital age. New Media & Society, 11, (5), 659-683.


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