By Andrew Pillow
At least once a week I see someone on my Facebook timeline express outrage at a story that is clearly satire. More often than that, I see people tweet and share blog posts full of conjecture and opinion as if they were scholarly articles or legitimate journalistic works. Worse still, I see quite a few lies and half-truths shared as well.
I’ll admit that I’m guilty at poking fun at these people. It’s hard to help. People having visceral reactions to Onion articles is just funny. People sharing conspiracy theories about UFOs and “steel beams” makes for interesting comment threads.
But I realized something earlier this year that put a stop to my fun… These people vote. If the average citizen can’t tell the difference between some fringe blog post rant, and legitimate long form journalism then you have more than an amusing social media dynamic, you have an existential threat to democracy.
You see in a democracy it is the job of the free and informed press to inform the citizens, and it is the job of the citizens to make informed decisions about their government. If the press doesn’t do their job well… citizens can’t possibly do their job well either. This truth has become self-evident in recent political events.
According to studies, “fake news” had a measurable impact in the 2016 presidential election. Fake news actually “outperformed” real news from a pure traffic standpoint.
But perhaps the best recent example of the people making an uninformed decision was Brexit. After voting to leave the European Union, it didn’t go un-noticed when the google search term “What’s the EU?” spiked shortly after the polls closed. Regardless of what side you fell on, that is probably not a good sign.
Facebook and Google are taking efforts to stop fake news. Its awesome that internet companies want to become better content curators. However, ultimately social media sites can’t be depended on to screen fake news any more than a super market can be to screen tabloids. Most companies are in this buisness of making money, so as long as there is a market and demand for sensationalized and fake news someone will push it.
The internet and social media is still a relatively new phenomenon. It is not the fault of schools that Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, were not adequately prepared for discerning news on the internet. However, it is their responsibility to make sure our inability to adequately discriminate news sources isn’t passed down to Generation Z and Generation Alpha.
Students are already more naturally predisposed to rumors and conspiracy theories as it is. I have been regaled with stories of the “Illuminati” and “Killer Clowns” more times than I can count this year. Perhaps instead of telling them to take a seat and put their hands down I should engage them and explore why they believed such things. Maybe even use it as a class teaching moment.
I don’t have a curriculum on how to digest news on hand, and anything I come up with in the short amount of time I have to finish this piece won’t be fully thought out. However, it is clear that this is a problem we need to collectively solve, because uninformed students will often become uninformed adults. Uninformed adults make uninformed decisions, and our government wasn’t designed for that.
Read more about the “fake news” problem here.
Test your ability to pick out accurate news stories with a “fake news” quiz here.
Read an interview from a “fake news” creator here.