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  4. Disinformation is the Story of Our Age

Barack Obama, at the Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy Conference at the University of Chicago on 6 April 2022, queried, “imagine how any of us would process information if we are not getting, seeing, anything else?... It is difficult for me to see how we can win the contest of ideas if, in fact, we are not able to agree on a baseline of facts that allow the marketplace of ideas to work.”

Recent events in Ukraine have underscored yet again the impact that intentional misinformation and propaganda have during times of political unrest and warfare. The news is full of stories of state-sponsored false facts and disinformation, as well as severe limits on access to information not just within Russia and Ukraine but widespread actively across the global infrastructure of information, thanks to the ease, speed, and breadth of the Internet. While it is common to use rhetoric to convince people of a threat, challenge, or benefit, it is also common in battles, invasions, and insurrections to create justifications for one’s best interests, shifting death counts or destruction or blame in whatever light pushes forward those interests. But in today’s world, in which so many have the ability to document what is happening in front of them and potentially share it, such claims can be investigated by many more trained eyes, and it is crucial that we are all critical consumers of the information deluge that we now receive.

The Kremlin has a long history of managing and manipulating information and its dissemination both internally and globally, as do many other seats of government around the world, but has used draconian measures to limit reporting on the situation in Ukraine from its own citizens. Just a week into the invasion of Ukraine, new censorship laws were passed, making it a crime to deviate from the Kremlin narrative with threats of up to 15 years in prison. The government forbade calling the attack on Ukraine a “war” or “invasion,” claiming it is a “special operation,” and forcefully shut down news outlets. “There is no room for independent journalism in Russia," said the editor-in-chief of the last independent media outlet in Pskov, Denis Kamalyagin. International agencies from CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, and others suspended reporting from within Russia to protect their staff, and on 28 March, Dmitry Muratov, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize as editor in chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta announced it would suspend publication until this “special operation” in Ukraine ends, after receiving its second warning from Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s media censorship agency. Access to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, which carry news in opposition to Putin, has been cut off, either by the companies or the government, although some Russians are able to get news through VPNs. Many young, post-Soviet era Russians have fled the country for the West as more restrictions are put in place. “Putin doesn’t want them, either, dubbing self-exiled Russians a ‘fifth column’ that is working to undermine their homeland. In a televised address, Putin condemned Russians with a Western mentality as “national traitors” who cannot live without “oysters and gender freedom.”

Since 2008, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine has shifted from a strategic partnership to Russia attempting to delegitimize Ukraine’s government through claims of rising Ukrainian fascism and neo-Nazism, protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine from genocide, and fears that Ukraine would join NATO. From the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, through years of increasing disinformation and rhetoric to the Russian population, Putin’s government has internally controlled the image of Ukraine, allowing him to justify on 24 February 2022 the “special military operation [with the goal] to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the regime in Kyiv for eight years. And for this, we will pursue the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”

The recent atrocities against civilians in Bucha, potential war crimes as defined by the Geneva Convention, were declared fake news by the Russian press. Ukraine was accused of staging the scene once the Russian army withdrew, although satellite imagery shows bodies strewn in the streets in the same positions, some with hands tied behind their backs, during their occupation of the city.

A claim on Twitter that US military-funded biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine had been discovered spread quickly across media on 24 February, even though they were diagnostic and biodefense labs.

Subsequent coverage from Fox News that the status of the biological work was irrelevant as they could be used as weapons was picked up by the Russian news and quickly received over a million views on just one Telegram post alone by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

On 10 March, Twitter and Instagram posts with the same image and similar language from Russian Embassies falsely claimed that a photo of an injured pregnant woman leaving the ruins of a shelled maternity hospital in Mariupol was fake.

How do we as consumers discern what is real in an age of DeepFake videos created using Artificial Intelligence and Instagram posts of images that can be altered with simple phone apps available globally? And more importantly, how do we help our students become better-informed users of content when they are barraged with media and messages from unknown sources?

At St. Stephen’s, we spend several weeks in the Core 9 class talking about the validity of what we see online, implicit and explicit bias, why it is important to pause before reposting, how our information can be narrowed from our search history known as the Google bubble or filter, and how to determine if claims are true or not. After the events of 6 January 2021 in Washington, we talked about the value of a free journalist corps in a democracy and reiterated the need to consult multiple news sources. We also discussed who has the right to limit someone’s free speech and if we thought it should be left to social media companies.

Librarians used to teach about website evaluation by examining the site itself for clues, but after following a course for teachers and examining the materials from the joint MIT-Stanford University Civic Online Reasoning project, we have introduced Lateral Reading. Our students now see a claim, question its validity, and immediately go online to see what other sites are sharing about the same information. It works if it's a news story, an historic document, an interview, anything that conveys information. Students applied this to assignments on fake Covid news as well as political issues and were surprised at how seemingly believable claims could be debunked quite quickly. It has added more value to their critical analysis of media they are deluged with throughout their day.

One of many fake news items Core 9 students found and reported on during a unit on Fake News in 2020-2021.


How to verify the news you see:

  • Pick several verifiable and appropriate news sources, and check their reporting against each other.  Do not get all your news reporting from sources with a similar political slant or agenda.  Some suggestions:
    • US: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Public Broadcasting Service PBS, National Public Radio NPR 
    • IT: Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, RAI News
    • UK: The Guardian, The London Times, BBC
    • Al-Jazeera, Reuters, Associated Press News, ANSA
    • NOTE: the US, UK, and EU, YouTube, Twitter, and other online sites have blocked access to the two major Russian government-sponsored News Channels, RT News and Sputnik.
  • Use fact-checking skills, asking questions such as
    • Who wrote this, and what are their qualifications?
    • Do they have verified status indicated by a blue checkmark next to their name on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook?
    • What motivated them to write this?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • What do they hope their audience will take away from this?
    • Do a reverse image search on Google
  • Check fact-checking sites online

See How The New York Times Verifies Reporting on the Ukraine War 11 March 2022, Updated 1 April 2022

hero jill muti
Chapter 01: News from the Board of Trustees | Welcome to St. Stephen's

Welcome Head of School-Elect Jill Muti

The St. Stephen’s community looks forward to welcoming Head-Elect Jill Muti when she arrives in Rome later this summer.

For the last eighteen years, Ms. Muti has been the Head of Ashley Hall, a Pre-K-12th-grade independent school for girls serving 685 students. In this capacity, she has managed the budget, staffing, and all aspects of student life and has had hands-on leadership in virtually every dimension of the School's program, including strategic planning and development. 

Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2022 Highlights

The Fight for Ukraine: A Journey to the End of the Night

It was a day after Russia invaded when Alex texted.

Now a successful attorney, my good friend is Ukrainian. In childhood, he was a refugee, encamped in Italy before being relocated to Texas. “Remember that thing you wrote about whether individuals shape history?” he asked. I had to admit that I did not. “I do,” he said.

By Jen Hollis - Teacher of IB History
ukraine facts
Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | A Comment on Our Times

Ukraine Facts at a Glance



In March of 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed a region of Ukraine called Crimea, which Russia believed belonged to them. It was annexed through a Crimean parliament vote, followed by a 97% win referendum. The annexation, however, is still widely disputed by Ukraine and the International Community. (NPR)  It remains the only time a European nation has used military force to seize territory since World War II.

By Aslan Stephenson ‘25
Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | Putin's Mind, A Comment on Our Times, Cortile 2022 Highlights

Opinion - Putin’s Mind: A Psychological Assessment

With Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine,

Russia's rise towards autocracy hit a new high. Putin has threatened any country attempting to intervene with dire consequences, which some fear may include the use of nuclear weapons, during this full-scale military invasion.

By Emma C. Jansen ‘24
when will it end
Chapter 02: War in Ukraine | A Comment on Our Times

When Will It End?

A chill ran down my spine on February 24th as I watched the invasion of my home country in absolute horror.

Many said it wouldn’t happen. It did. Our president, Volodymyr Zelensky, appealed to the Russian people in a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable in those early morning hours in late February.

By Unnamed SSS Student
Chapter 03: Around School | Boarding Activities

Boarding: Holiday dinner & weekend activities

Enjoy our photo gallery

Lago Albona bording2
Chapter 03: Around School | Fall Trips, Boarding Activities

Boarding: Lago Albano & Fall trips

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Field trip&CAS2
Chapter 03: Around School | Service, Field Trips

Field Trips & CAS

Enjoy our photo gallery

Chapter 04: Technology Today | Blockchain, Technology

The Blockchain

Generation Z is growing up in a technologically advanced world.

Even though we are supposed to know the latest technology and advancements, many things you read about are still unclear and confusing.

By Emma C. Jansen ‘24
love of bitcoin
Chapter 04: Technology Today | Love of Crypto, Technology

For the Love of Crypto

Cryptocurrency is one of the world’s greatest inventions.

However, there is a lot of false information about it. For many, it remains mysterious and something not well understood. Because of that, many people choose to stay away from it, believing they will lose a lot of money. But is that really the case?

By Matteo Torralba ‘24
Chapter 04: Technology Today | NFT, Technology

I’ll Have an NFT, Please

In the last couple of months, interest in NFTs has skyrocketed.

If you haven’t heard of or know anything about this latest craze, the concept is relatively simple. NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token, which is essentially a virtual or digital collectible (e.g., art). If you are to buy a particular NFT, that means you are the only certified holder of it. It’s a pretty cool phenomenon.

By Francesco Saviotti ‘23
Chapter 04: Technology Today | New Technologies

New Technologies on the Horizon

Blockchain technology offers many exciting possibilities in various industries–from finance and law to music and fashion,and we’ve read a few use cases in this chapter. Below, you’ll find a few more technologies that are my top picks I believe we should keep an eye on for the impact each has the potential of having on human welfare.

By Francesco Saviotti ‘23
Chapter 05: The Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum | The Lyceum, Classics

The Aventinus Minor Project: An Educational and Community Archaeology Project

Learning about human societies - past, present, and future.


By Inge Weustink - Director of the Lyceum, Classics Teacher
Chapter 05: The Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum

Scientific Methods in Archaeology Lessons

During the last week of March, the 9th- and 10th- graders engaged in a presentation followed by an interactive session related to archaeology and the sciences.

By Esme Lundius ‘10 - St. Stephen’s Activities Coordinator, Boarding Department
Chapter 06: Creative Writing | The Arts, Creative Writing

Celebrating the Core Value of Creativity

Creative Writing Teacher Moira Egan is extremely pleased to introduce these pieces by students in the Spring Semester’s Creative Writing Classes.

A wide and wonderful gamut is represented here, including works inspired by works of literature or students’ artwork, the classic yet fun form of ovillejos, and beautiful translations from the Hindi and Chinese.

eric mayer
Chapter 07: Interview with Outgoing Head of School Eric Mayer

Eric Mayer

Outgoing Head of School

By Natalie Edwards '14 - City of Rome I, Core 9 Teacher and member of the Boarding Faculty
new technologies
Chapter 08: Our Life Online | Digital St. Stephen's

Technology for Good

In this online event, we discussed and provided insight into how St.Stephen’s alumni benefit from an adaptive aptitude towards building technologies that truly solve problems, beyond the financial gain.

Chapter 08: Our Life Online | Gaming, Technology

The Wonderful World of Gaming

In gaming, there are several social and emotional advantages.

Although online games are a form of entertainment, with the support and guidance of parents, they can help children develop creativity, cultivate relationships with friends, and improve strategic thinking.

By Francesco Saviotti ‘23
healthy mind
Chapter 09: Sports | Exercise Critical for a Healthy Mind

Why Exercise is Critical for Maintaining a Healthy Mind

Exercise, be it aerobic or anaerobic, is generally perceived as a positive activity to partake in; yet what does the science say when it comes to its effects on mood, mental health, and general well-being?

By Alexander Carbon ‘22
Chapter 09: Sports | Sports Program at School

Sports lens

Enjoy our photo gallery

ice skating
Chapter 09: Sports | Ice Skating is a Passion

The Fire Inside Me

I frequently question what people are passionate about.

And, I mean like insanely in love and an ardent passion towards a sport, music, subject, person, or anything; a kind of passion that lights a fire inside you.

By Clotilde Citrani ‘23
true to myself
Chapter 10: Mental Health | Surrounded yourself with Healthy People

To Thyself Be True

The importance of surrounding yourself with healthy people is knowing you are fine just by yourself if you don’t find them

By Emma LeGalle ‘23
mental health
Chapter 10: Mental Health | Impact on Mental Health, The Pandemic

The Impact of the Pandemic on the Mental Health of Adolescents

Psychologist Erik Erickson in his theory of psychosocial development, posits that between the ages of approximately 12 and 18, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity and explore their independence.

By Luisa Nannini - LCSW Health and Wellness Counselor
Chapter 11: Service Tributes | In the Spirit of Service

Supporting the Children of Idjwi

“Providing a meal at school is a simple but concrete way to give poor children a chance to learn and thrive.” WFP

By Dr. Helen Pope - Former St. Stephen’s Teacher and Director of the Dr. Helen Pope Lyceum
Chapter 11: Service Tributes | In the Spirit of Service

The House Whose Name is Love

La Casa di Andrea

By Annie Jacquet - Teacher of French and Supervisor of the Reach Out Student Club /Associazione Andrea Tudisco
Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | Book Corner

The Giver by Lois Lowry

HarperCollins Edition 2014

The novel, The Giver, is a fantasy intended for young audiences. It is an exciting story full of twists and turns. But above all, especially in these times, it pushed me to reflect on the pain brought by war and human brutality.

By Vittoria Giusti ‘22
Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | Book Corner

The Plague by Albert Camus

My English class has been reading and studying the novel The Plague by Albert Camus.

Throughout the book–centered around disease, sickness, and consequent suffering–we observe the plague's ‘chillingly rapid’ progression throughout the city and its psychological, social, and emotional effects on those living through it.

By Benedetta Bosco ‘22
Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | Photography, The Arts, Digital St. Stephen's

Liana Miuccio's Photoclasses

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Chapter 12: The Arts Collective | What Students are Watching

Film review: Promising Young Woman (2020)

IMDB Rating: 7.5

‘Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?’