In my teenage years, I remember reading the National Enquirer. Always appetizing, at least on the surface, it was full of big colourful pictures and juicy, sensationalized headlines about any number of celebrity tragedies, social conspiracies or political scandals. I was just learning to ‘consume’ news at this point, and I soon began to make better nutritional choices. I learned that reputable newspapers and broadcasters were available, and the truth never seemed difficult to find. This all happened in a time before the internet changed the way news is cooked up, packaged and then served like fast food to the average social media diner (often before an order is even placed). Media and reporting have been evolving at a pace that is difficult to keep up with, but if one were to examine the recent history of these changes, it may be fair to say that journalism is in its ‘Yellow’ period, i.e. journalism that is “based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration” (Oxford Dictionary).
Jump to 2010. The G20 protest in Toronto. I took part in the OSSTF/FEESO group that marched in that protest. I had the opportunity to chat with many different people from all kinds of backgrounds as we walked. One of the people I met was a ‘citizen’ reporter. The Internet in its current state was beginning to challenge the way information was presented, with average people out there capturing stories and presenting them on the web. Armed with digital cameras and web platforms, there were eyes on the ground everywhere at the G20. People were starting to look to other, non-traditional sources to supplement their news diets.
A recent article by Mike Wendling, of BBC Trending, attempts to capture the near history of the term “Fake News” and how it evolved to its current iteration. He recounts how BuzzFeed’s media editor Craig Silverman identified a number of completely untrue news stories circulating in 2016 during the U.S. presidential election. These stories were written by a group of young people in Macedonia who were taking advantage of social media algorithms to generate profits through advertising hits. Social media algorithms are ostensibly designed to present users with content that they actually want to engage with. At that point in 2016, Facebook’s algorithms, which are constantly changing, would present users with news stories based on how often they had interacted with similar posts, how often they and others had hidden similar posts, and the level of engagement (clickthroughs, likes, shares, etc.) a post had received (AJ Agrawal for Forbes 2016).
When it came to political news stories in 2016, vast numbers of social media users, it seems, could not resist the provocative headlines and unlikely details of stories that supported their own political biases, even if those stories were almost entirely false. And people who reacted positively to this type of article found their Facebook feeds providing them more and more of the same. Consequently, some young Macedonians received a significant financial payoff for creating confusion and facilitating the mass distribution of false information during a presidential election.
From this point, it became clear that there was a susceptibility, and perhaps even a market share, to be exploited among some in the public. The term “Fake News” will soon have a formal dictionary definition: false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc. (dictionary.com).
And all of this has brought us to what many are calling the post-truth era of politics, an era in which some politicians have realized that, for many voters, verifiable facts have ceased to matter. An era in which even claims that are demonstrably false will be understood to be true if they are simply repeated often enough.
Together, post truth politics and fake news have contributed to a modern digital environment that is challenging to navigate, and this presents a number of problems, especially to young people.
Keith Sled, District 29, Hastings-Prince Edward has been teaching English for almost twenty years, and media for fifteen years. He has noticed that students enter the media course with varying levels of skills and abilities. Not everyone understands what advertising is and how it targets people. “Critical thinking skills are key to understanding targeting in ads and the echo chamber of social media.”
The English Media course seems to be a natural starting point to begin pushing back against fake news. While the units of study in the course have many learning outcomes that could be applied to study fake news and the bubble effect of social media on opinions and attitudes, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of curriculum and resource development. Traditionally, the course has not been taught with this focus in mind, but the tools of the course can be repurposed for the new job, with the appropriate time and support. Sadly, when courses fall victim to declining enrollment, English Media is usually one of the first casualties. If educators are going to be the ones to teach young people how to be vigilant curators of their social media diet, there is a need to provide more support for students at all levels. It is difficult at best to separate fact from fiction when, along with credible sources of information, you are also bombarded with clickbait, fake news and post-truth rhetoric, all presented to you indiscriminately by algorithms designed to give you content that, according to your online history, you are interested in exploring. Online fact-checking resources like Factcheck.org, Snopes.com, and Politifact.com are seeing more and more traffic as discriminating consumers of information struggle to separate truth from fiction.
The very idea that people are actively producing misinformation for mass consumption demands that we consider Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote: “…wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights….” If we passively allow ourselves to become uninformed or misinformed, we erode a key foundation of democracy.
While laws are beginning to appear in some countries to combat fake news, the first line of defense truly is education. We must build a bastion of critical thinking skills and we must learn to check ourselves and teach our students to do the same, as many of them have known no other source for information as vast, imposing and appetizing as the current social media environment.