Media literacy courses may teach students to spot fake news

July 25, 2018


Disinformation and misinformation are new terms that define old tools of the trade of communication: false or inaccurate information or, to put it simply, lies. While disinformation is used to depict the deliberate spread of false or inaccurate information, misinformation means incorrect information that is spread intentionally or unintentionally. Disinformation resembles an intentional lie, while misinformation resembles an unintentional lie. The spread of false information, intentional or not, is a tale as old as the world, but the novelty of fake news is the sheer power that comes from rapid and extreme dissemination of this false information on social media channels.

Although social media networks have not been created to produce false information, the structure of these networks favors emotional response, as a substitute for rational, critical thinking. In the past, myths and legends were the social “glue” for communities everywhere, but now the fake news phenomenon is rapidly replacing them. Anti-myths and alternative facts are born every day. “Good morning, everybody. Good morning to the media — the legitimate media and the fake-news media,” President Trump said in his opening remarks at the NATO Summit. A few weeks earlier Trump stated that “journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.” Can media literacy courses provide a solution that will help Americans spot fake news and evaluate information while preserving the freedom of the press?

Every problem has a solution

So far, the Internet has been free because it has been built on trust. As the phenomenon known as fake news flourishes online, everything will change. The “romantic” era of the Internet is over and a new era of confusion is on the rise, as more and more inconsistent statements regarding the media are made. As big companies like Facebook and Google are hoping to fight fake news with new tech and ‘trust indicators’, The Times and The Sunday Times provided the UK with a different solution. The media giants have recently introduced UK’s first free media literacy course for students. The course is available to all secondary schools, sixth forms, and colleges and is already used by ten schools.

“It’s vital that young people are confident, critical thinkers when navigating the news online. Our programme will teach students to think like a journalist, to ask the right questions and verify the facts,” John Witherow, editor of The Times said. The benefits that social media and the Internet provide in terms of rapidly receiving and transmitting information are hard to replace. But when choosing to disseminate that information, each user becomes a reliable media channel, especially for his or her friends. And with this freedom to express our opinions in new ways comes the responsibility to ensure that the information we disseminate is correct.

As time is ticking away

The phenomenon known as fake news is not new, but that is precisely what makes it even more dangerous. Most people believe that the concept of fake news was born with the US Presidential elections, or even with Brexit. But false news has been around from the time of the Pharaohs, as the Battle of Kadesh demonstrates. Rameses the Great portrayed this battle as a brilliant victory for the Egyptians, but evidence shows it was actually a stalemate. While the continuity of fake news proves its efficiency, the recent boost in production and dissemination introduces the need for an equally effective solution. Is media literacy the correct answer?

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance,” George Bernard Shaw wrote. These words seem prophetic for the digital age, when each solution may instead turn into a new problem in the blink of an eye. The Internet and especially social media have provided users with rapid access to information only to cause the dissemination of false facts at a pace never seen before. Could the solution to fake news prove to have similar results?

A newspaper in Texas recently transgressed Facebook’s algorithms’ rules while posting a portion of the Declaration of Independence in the run-up to the Fourth of July. The post in question was automatically withheld from publication for about one day because of “hate speech,” but it was later reviewed by Facebook employees and reinstated. However, the event triggered a torrent of criticism as it was not the first time that Facebook’s algorithms resorted to what is now called “algorithmic censorship.” As Facebook is also hoping to fight fake news, the company relies not only on new tech and algorithms to debunk articles but also on human fact-checkers. This may be interpreted as a sign that, while technology is useful online, critical thinking is essential while reading the news, at least for now and in the near future.