January 2, 2017

Fake News: Not Your Main Problem

Categories: Critical Perspectives, Digital Citizenship
child drawing on newspaper

This headline may sound shocking, but I truly understand the urgent need to develop digital literacies in response to the fake news phenomenon. But, let me tell you, I live in Egypt, where “fake” news has been the norm for years. Orwell’s got nothing on us.

A couple weeks ago, I tweeted this (and this post expands on that):

I agree with Kris Shaffer, Mike Caulfield, Lee Skallerup Bessette and others on the importance of promoting digital literacies so college students and all of us can detect fake news and combat it. The problem isn’t the fake news itself, as much as the historical consciousness that allows so many to willingly believe it with no skepticism. Moreover, the real news, the one that has fewer lies and less deceit/spin on it, is also difficult to handle and often implies a lot about our fellow (world) citizens that we aren’t prepared to respond to. Addressing fake news seems to me to be a technical solution to a symptom, but does not necessarily address the root causes in a holistic manner.

Britni Brown O’Donnell wrote what I have been wanting to write for awhile. She brought up the important question of ontological and epistemological assumptions behind the term Post-truth:

“Because if you believe in Truth or truth matters and changes how you come to understand and conceive of the world” (where capitalizing the T in Truth implies one Truth, and lowercase t in truth implies multiple possible truths).

Britni comes to a conclusion that much of the discourse around post-truth carries assumptions that “subjective–personal–information is not fact but rather something not True. You come to know from the authority, not through your interpretation.”

Moreover, she explains her own beliefs (similar to mine):

What is true is contextual, situated in certain experiences and supported by evidence. There is a truth, but no way to be post-truth, because there [is] no indisputable objective information.

There are, of course, instances of blatant non-truth. For example, if a news source says X was in location Z at a certain time, but X was actually at location Y. But, much fakeness builds on smoke (where there is fire, but the fakers pile on layers of biased interpretation and sensationalism). What Britni is describing is not “anything goes” relativism, but a recognition that the same “fact” is interpreted differently depending on your values and worldview.

As someone who did my Ph.D. on the development of critical thinking, and who does some work on citizenship (e.g. my digital citizenship DML article), I could take a lot of angles in responding to this, but my main arguments are:

  1. Having different perspectives on truth and (gasp) fake news are good for critical thinking. In my Ph.D. research, students learned to be critical of media and religious authority when they became exposed to contradictory information. Exposure to difference (credible and not credible) is important, as is exposure to people different from ourselves, with different cultures and value systems. Responding to these others openly rather than with skepticism is important. As Mia Zamora says, “Not thinking something is possible is indeed a failure of the imagination.” And, sometimes, the only way to imagine something is possible is to learn to look at the world from a different perspective. This attitude takes time and care to nurture.
  2. The issue here is often tackled from a cognitive only perspective, and we ignore the moral and socio-emotional dimensions.
  3. The real problem isn’t that some sources produce fake news. The problem is that young people (and grown, otherwise reasonable adults!) are not prepared, morally, socially, and emotionally to interpret this critically. Martin Weller has wondered if we are at an age of unenlightenment, and Sherri Spelic has brought up the issue of incuriosity about others — that’s more an attitude and an orientation than just a skill. It’s not something we switch on. It takes years to build, especially with so much going against us.
  4. The solution isn’t going to be by focusing on promoting digital literacies to combat fake news. It’s got to be about nurturing cross-cultural learning attitudes and skills that help make our knee-jerk reactions to news in general more socially just and empathetic. While peer-reviewing Kris Shaffer’s article, I followed a link that explained the term gaslighting better to me (who only understood it vaguely beforehand), and I recognized the need for adequate emotional and social preparation to deal with this, not just cognitive recognition that it is happening; I realized there is a moral imperative to responding to gaslighting when we notice others doing it (Kris alludes to this need to act on behalf of others in his article).
  5. Not only do we need to work on expanding and redirecting our inner compass toward social justice and understanding, we also need to recognize that “real news” (stripped of spins and sensationalism) also requires adequate preparation for our youth (and honestly ourselves). Whenever we learn about unjust killing of innocent civilians, this news is often real even if the details get sensationalized. We feel outraged or sad or helpless (and occasionally numb when it’s the same news each day with different numbers) and we need to help our youth and ourselves respond.

This is the first post of several where I plan to unpack these ideas. I have spoken to Mike Caulfield about how I believe the digital polarization project he is leading could (and in my opinion should) involve an intercultural learning element beyond the dealing with fake news. I also hope to respond to the recent blog by Nishant Shah on care and the teacher’s role. In the meantime, I invite you to check out Bonnie Stewart’s call for collective action here.

Banner image credit: flickr photo by Clover_1  shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license