Fake news!! ALTERNATIVE FACTS!!! (Part Two)
In my first post about fake news (https://goo.gl/06VyM7), I mentioned Bat Boy, the Pope carving roast cherub for Christmas, and the imminent destruction of Earth by the planet Nibiru.
I suggested that no one would believe any of those stories and would recognize that they are all fake. Well, almost no one.
Since that post, our new administration has given us other stories to challenge our thinking about news, including President Trump’s press secretary statement that Trump’s inauguration attendance was the largest in history, disagreeing with many of the news reports. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/24/fact-check-inauguration-crowd-size/96984496/ Whose “news” was accurate? A Trump surrogate suggested that the press secretary didn’t lie but rather used “alternative facts.” https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2017/01/23/alternative-facts-quip-from-kellyanne-conway-sparks-mockery/45si5b0bXrRsPB0BZGs1xM/story.html So here we are discussing whether comments from the White House are in the same category as Bat Boy, cherub carving, and Nibiru. The problem of fake news is much bigger than we might have thought and certainly bigger than we wished.
(You’ll recall that one of the strategies from my first post was to analyze sources. That can’t be done if no sources are given so I have provided many here. Consider asking students to provide sources for all their comments, too. Ban discussion comments such as “The Keystone Pipeline will wreck the environment” and encourage “According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Keystone Pipeline will cause environmental damage.” Then you can discuss sources—why should I believe the Huffington Post?—as well as the pipeline.)
Teach students to verify
Don’t take any one person’s word as gospel. Don’t believe one source. Check everything out. For example, watch candidate Trump describing Obama dealing with a protestor: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-election-day/fact-check-trump-claims-obama-scolded-protester-video-shows-otherwise-n678351 Notice that Trump said, “You have to go back and look and study.” Good advice. Did Trump accurately describe where “they put the cameras”? Did he accurately describe what Obama said and how he said it? You can check it out yourself. Here is a video of the event Trump was talking about: http://time.com/4559072/barack-obama-north-carolina-rally-heckler-video/ Unfortunately, we live in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Fortunately, almost everything is recorded somehow which makes verification easier. If there is no recording, remember the tip from my first post about looking for multiple sources. Are other reputable news outlets reporting the event in a similar way?
Teach students to verify images
My presentations about how to teach students oral communication skills are enormously popular. Here is a picture of the crowd that came to see my last presentation:
Except that isn’t true. Well, it is true that I do presentations about teaching speaking (http://pvlegs.com/recentwork/) but that picture is not from my show. Use Google’s reverse image search. Upload an image, and Google will tell you where it is from:
Oops. Busted. If you wonder if an image is accurate, verify.
Teach students to demand evidence
As I write this, news outlets are talking about Trump’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes. Trump said that three to five million votes for Clinton were fraudulent. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/01/23/at-white-house-trump-tells-congressional-leaders-3-5-million-illegal-ballots-cost-him-the-popular-vote/?utm_term=.cb9173c6c951 A simple and very specific statement. Where did that number come from? What evidence supports that statement? Turns out, none. As I write this, the President is going to launch an investigation into voter fraud so maybe some evidence will turn up later. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/26/fact-check-trumps-bogus-voter-fraud-claims-revisited/97080242/
Of course, asking to students to look for evidence is not worth much if they haven’t been taught what evidence is. Teach them the five types of evidence. I talk much more about evidence in Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (https://goo.gl/svtXEw), but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the questions this teacher asked a student during a discussion about football:
Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?
As I said in my first post, there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.
Why are we susceptible to fake news?
Partly because we are lazy. It takes effort to investigate. Partly because we haven’t been taught about argument and reasoning. We make errors in thinking because we don’t know what to look for. Good Thinking also gives teachers ideas for teaching about how to avoid reasoning errors. I’ll share a couple of ideas from that book here.
Teach the availability bias
For years, my father gave money to an organization that claimed to be committed to eliminating pork barrel spending, money Congressmen and women earmark from a large budget bill to send to a local project in their district. For example, in 2006 the federal government authorized $500,000 to Sparta, North Carolina to construct a teapot museum to showcase Gloria and Sonny Kamm’s 6,000 teapot collection. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparta_Teapot_Museum Frequently, my dad would get an email with another example. Over time, my father came to believe that pork barrel spending was the largest part of the federal budget. I told him that pork barrel spending is between 0.5% and 1% according to most studies, and eliminating all of it wouldn’t dent the federal deficit. He didn’t believe me. What he saw was what he believed. My father was misled. Easily available information crowded out significant other information. This doesn’t apply only to repeated messages. The first message we see colors our subsequent thinking. We have all said, “I think heard somewhere that…” We didn’t research it, we don’t remember exactly where we heard of saw it, but it stuck. Teach students to be wary of believing something just because it was easily available.
Teach the confirmation bias
You have opinions. Unfortunately, those opinions alter the way you view reality. Humans are apparently wired to notice things that confirm what they believe. Ever have parents who think you are treating their child unfairly? You do several hundred things well but mismark one paper: “See? You hate my kid!” None of the good stuff got noticed. We want to be right, and we notice the things that “prove” what we already think. Fake news creators know this. You are more susceptible to falsehoods if they fit your pre-existing narrative. You hate Hillary? I will write a fake story alleging she did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You hate Trump? I will write a fake story alleging he did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You don’t need to verify the because you already feel it is true. The flip side is that you will call something that doesn’t agree with you fake news even if it is true. Teach students to be very careful about making decisions about news stories based on what they want to believe.
Critical thinking is a good thing to teach students (and adults). I worry that many of us are letting down our guard, and fake news creators are counting on exactly that. I hope these two posts are useful start for media analysis. Give students tools they need to be intelligent consumers of news. Keep them from being duped.