“Fake news” is all the rage now. Since Election Day, articles have appeared daily, outlining this latest scourge infecting the nation’s news landscape.
CT News Junkie was among the many news outlets to address the issue in two very timely and informative op-eds by Terry Cowgill and Susan Bigelow. More and more people are simply too willing or too stupid (or both) to believe whatever they read these days.
The internet and social networks are the primary culprits. In his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris explains the apt term “smupid” — a portmanteau of “smart” and “stupid” coined by technology writer Douglas Coupland: “Shoveling the internet into our brains gives us a mental state where ‘we acknowledge that we’ve never been smarter as individuals and yet somehow we’ve never felt stupider.’” In other words, “Smupid people acknowledge their enhanced intelligence but feel stupid because the info was just way too easy to access.”
I believe Coupland gets it only half-right. People do feel smarter, thanks to the internet, but it ends there as too many of us are so smug we don’t even bother to question ourselves.
I first noticed this phenomenon about five years ago when I introduced a Media Literacy unit called “Finding Truth in an Internet World.” I began the unit by asking students to review a website about the endangered “tree octopus.” This website was fake, of course, so I was pleased that most of my high school students were more discerning than the middle schoolers participating in a 2006 UConn study.
“When researchers in the Neag School of Education asked 25 seventh-graders from middle schools across the state to review a website devoted to a fictitious endangered species, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, the results troubled them,” according to a news release. Specifically, all 25 students fell for the hoax, and “most struggled when asked to produce proof — or even clues — that the web site was false.”
The recent proliferation of fake news only underscores this woeful lack of critical-thinking skills among students, including those in college.
In a recent Stanford University study, “Middle school, high school, and college students in 12 states were asked to evaluate the information presented in tweets, comments, and articles. More than 7,800 student responses were collected.”
“In exercise after exercise, the researchers were ‘shocked’ . . . by how many students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of that information. The students displayed a ‘stunning and dismaying consistency’ in their responses, the researchers wrote, getting duped again and again.”
Is anyone surprised that even adults cannot separate fact from fiction? My own experiences with Facebook reveal an alarming lack of scrutiny applied to “news” stories. Indeed, people are more likely to exhibit confirmation bias than skepticism, routinely believing and re-posting any story that fits their belief system.
The saddest reality of the growing faith in fake news articles is how extensively they influenced the presidential election. A BuzzFeed News analysis of more than 1,000 posts from “six large hyperpartisan Facebook pages selected from the right and from the left found that the least accurate pages generated some of the highest numbers of shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook — far more shares and comments than three large mainstream political news pages.”
Specifically, the analysis discovered that “38 percent of all posts were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false, compared to 19 percent of posts from three hyperpartisan left-wing pages that were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false. The right-wing pages are among the forces — perhaps as potent as the cable news shows that have gotten far more attention — that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.”
Let’s get this straight: Citizens are increasingly turning to fake news rather than real news to inform their voting decisions since “the internet has broken down the traditional distinction between professional news-gathering and amateur rumor-mongering,” reports Vox. “On the internet, the ‘Denver Guardian’ — a fake news site designed to look like a real Colorado newspaper — can reach a wide audience as easily as real news organizations like the Denver Post, the New York Times, and Fox News.”
But that might not be the worst of it. We now have a president-elect — already known for playing fast and loose with facts — who has himself become a source of fake news. Earlier this week came this whopper via Twitter: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” No substantiation, no supporting evidence for either fabricated assertion within that tweet. It’s the very definition of “fake news.”
The situation is dire, indeed, reminding me of Jason Robard’s line in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters.” Although Robards, playing the part of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, was referring to Watergate in 1973, he could have been discussing fake news in 2016.
Clearly, we have reached a critical juncture in American journalism and politics. Can America survive this scourge of fake news or will the electorate continue to rely on only that “news” that suits its fancy? Many are calling on Facebook and Google to “fix” the problem, but that’s not the ultimate answer. The answer lies with us, the people. It’s time to use our own brains and step up for truth.
NEXT WEEK: A Primer on Media Literacy
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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