Fake News: a Problem to Confront in the Classroom

April 4, 2017

One of the most common phrases we heard throughout the 2016 presidential election was “fake news,” as the American public was inundated with stories from untrustworthy “media” outlets that ranged from exaggerations to flat-out lies. The confusion was aided not only by Donald Trump, a conspiracy theorist himself whose chief strategist (Breitbart’s Steve Bannon) is a fake news professional, but by the meddling of the Russian government, an entity exceptionally familiar with the concept. The dissemination of fake news (or as Trump associate Kellyanne Conway prefers to call it, “alternative facts”) had an immeasurable impact on the 2016 presidential election, and continues to play a frightening role in the fragmentation of our country – a role that those of us in higher ed. have an obligation to acknowledge, and work to diminish.

 

In some cases, this dissemination of fiction masquerading as fact has even resulted in violence and criminal activity: take the example of Edgar Maddison Welch, who in December entered Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. and opened fire with an assault rifle, provoked by a false conspiracy theory that Hilary Clinton campaign officials were abusing children on-site. The story that came to be called “pizzagate” was promoted on a number of far-right fake news sites, most notably the popular Infowars, run by infamous conspiracy-monger Alex Jones. Infowars has promoted a host of offensive lies over the past few years, including the theory that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax perpetrated by gun control advocates, rhetoric that has prompted some Jones fanatics to harass and threaten victims’ families.

 

…And the list goes on. The moral of the story? Fake news isn’t just politically problematic: it’s endangering people’s lives.

 

It’s clear that despite widespread outrage and the (minor) efforts by Google and Facebook to curb it, fake news continues to spread, and it’s now irrevocably part of our society. So what do we do? With the staggering amount of information available on the Internet, delivered to us in the knee-jerk formats of Facebook and Twitter, how do we decipher what’s true and what’s false? And perhaps more importantly, what can we, as higher ed. professionals and students, do to ensure our continued access to the truth, and to fight the obfuscation and fabrication that poses a real threat to our democracy?

 

A January article in USA Today shed a bit of light on the ways that faculty in higher education are using this opportunity to teach critical thinking skills, and to educate students on how to recognize false reporting and combat its spread. The article quotes Johnny Sparks, a journalism professor at Ball State in Indiana:

 

“Journalism — from an academic standpoint — used to be rooted in colleges of fine arts and sciences,” Sparks said. “In order to understand what we’re doing and why, we have to emphasize and analyze the importance of philosophy and logic — we have to engage, constantly, in critical thinking. Those basic skills are losing their presence in a lot of journalistic education, and we need to evaluate how we’re going to teach and understand the fundamentals of truth.”

 

The author continues,

 

In an effort to evolve, Sparks said he’s working to require journalism students to take courses that revolve around research methods and data while also working with faculty to integrate courses on diversity awareness. Sparks said he also wants to see journalism classes open up to students from any academic discipline and allow minors and other individuals from the public to take classes in hopes of helping them develop media literacy.

 

The article also spotlights Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, which created a website called Hoaxy that fact checks news stories and analyzes how they are distributed through social media. The school’s faculty hope the tool will be used by students and others throughout the university and beyond.

 

If you’re an educator or a student at any level, fake news should be a concern. As evidenced by a 2016 Stanford University study, current college students are in fact susceptible to fake news, despite their reputation as a social media-savvy generation. These findings should only increase our sense of urgency: we must attack this very real challenge at the university level, so the next generation of citizens continues to pursue and protect the concept of truth.

 

How are you and your institution fighting fake news in the classroom and beyond? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments! For some additional suggestions, check out this round-up in the New York Times.

 

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