False News – An Educator’s Perspective on Digital Literacy
The words “false news” have become so explosive in our vocabulary and daily lives that a Google search on the topic will come up with approximately 274,000,000 results. Thanks to the internet, digital technology, and social media anyone can be a producer of information. In fact, we have more information at our finger tips than ever before. Yet, we have never been so misinformed.
Who’s to Blame?
There are plenty to blame for this misinformation, but many believe it starts with Facebook. Facebook reaches nearly 2 billion people each month, driving more traffic and attention to news than anything else. There are plenty of other good news sources out there, but people don’t bother to search them out. Instead they resort to the quick posts and shares on Facebook for their updates and information.
“Fake news is not black and white, it is a hundred shades of grey.” (Leetaru, 2016)
Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t put opposing views in an individual’s feed. People click links that align with their existing opinions, allowing them to see only the material that they support or agree with. Therefore, what we interpret as real or fake news can be based on opinions, backgrounds, and/or experiences. These echo chambers can prevent us from understanding the full scope of an issue, and make us more susceptible to false news.
Fact Checking and Digital Literacy
Some experts agree that the rise of false news is a sign that people no longer have the ability to think critically about information and data. We neglect to check the facts before reposting articles on social media platforms like Facebook. Even newspapers have made this mistake. Often the news we receive about other countries comes mediated from Western reports, without fact checking what that country’s own reports are saying.
According to a recent Stanford Study, digital natives at every level of education are unable to recognize a news article from an advertisement. Because there’s been an increased blending of these formats in journalism it’s becoming problematic. Mike Caulfield has worked in educational technology since 1997. He is currently the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver. Caulfield develops web literacy skills in college undergraduates. He’s also the editor of the New Horizons column for the EDUCAUSE Review. According to Caulfield,
“We are faced with massive information literacy problems, as shown by the complete inability of students and adults to identify fake stories, misinformation, disinformation, and other forms of spin.” (Dec. 19, 2016)
In his article “Yes, Digital Literacy. But which one?” , Caulfield emphasizes the need for a new kind of digital literacy. One in which knowledge and domain specific skills is key. Knowledge about how to use specific web tools, techniques, links, and tricks of the trade; as well as an understanding of ideologies and internet cultures, and basic detective work on what is fact, fiction, and/or opinion in online news. Basically an understanding of digital information through the immersion of oneself in its context. Or, learning the web by using it and developing critical thinking skills. Executing web searches, getting to know the ins and outs of hoax checkers like Snopes, Politifact, and Quote Investigator, as well as reverse image searches like TinEye can also be informative.
False News and Facebook
Another contributing factor in the rise of false news on social media sites like Facebook, is the opportunity for abuse and misuse. According to senior reporter Garrett Sloane, Facebook is making changes to combat the false news spreading on its platform. It’s been under intense scrutiny since Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election. An upset that some say was partly fuelled by misinformation on its site. Facebook has a plan to label false news and shut down links to these sites. Its users will also be able to report posts they consider suspicious. Fact checkers like Snopes, FactCheck.org and Politifact, will then determine whether the posts deserve a “disputed” label. If not, a warning will appear in the Facebook feed and pop up when someone tries to share the tagged posts.
Ad funding Schemes
Facebook is also trying to eliminate ads that fund false news. During the election, schemes were discovered with people making money on false news through their websites and Facebook accounts. Veles Macedonia, the former Yugoslavia, made headlines during the 2016 US election, when several teens profited from plagiarizing and mass distributing false political news through these means. Jobs had become scarce in Macedonia since its independence in 1991, and these teenagers saw the potential of the election in making them some money. One eighteen year old named Boris, to protect his identity, earned nearly $16 000 off his Pro-Trump websites PoliticsHall.com and USAPolitics.co.
Boris started his own websites after hearing about the success of an acquaintance. When a false news piece he published about Trump slapping a man went viral Boris was hooked. Several times a day he copied Pro-Trump articles to his sites and shared them on Facebook using his own, as well as 200 fake profiles. By monetizing his websites with web advertising he began to make a substantial profit. This encouraged friends to follow in his footsteps. In late November, growing concerns about the election and false news caused Google to suspend the ads on his sites. This Ended the profits from his scam, but others continued in Macedonia after the election. With literally thousands of likes and reposts, it isn’t hard to imagine the scope of this teen’s audience or the effect he may have had on US election results.
The New Street Smarts
Digital Literacy is the new street smarts in today’s social media age. Like all communication technologies before it, the web and social media has confused and terrified older generations, especially when it comes to educating our children. Change is never easy, but not unlike print, radio, and television, digital technology is here to stay. For me the answer will always be education, but as a former teacher I always go back to my roots!
Benton, J. (Nov. 2016). “The Year OF meDIa FaILure.” Quill. Vol.104. No.6, pp. 12-16. Available from: Communication & Mass Media Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 6, 2017.
Caulfield, Mike. (December 19, 2016). “Yes, Digital Literacy. But which one?”
Donald, Brooke. (Nov.22, 2016). “Stanford Researchers find Students have Trouble Judging the Credibility of Information Online.” Ed. Stanford. Edu.
Leetaru, Kalev. (Dec.11, 2016). “How Data and Information Literacy Could End Fake News.”
Sloane, G. (Dec. 19, 2016). “INSIDE THE PLAN TO COMBAT FAKE NEWS.” Advertising Age. Vol.87, No.24. Available from: Communication & Mass Media Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 6, 2017.
Subramanian, Samantha. (Feb.15, 2017). “Inside the Macedonian Fake-News Complex,” Wired. https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/