Combating Fake News: A Textbook Approach

The rise of ‘fake news’ has created a seemingly uncontrollable chain of events: tampering with politics, education, and social media around the world. ‘News’ can be defined as any received noteworthy information. Traditional news media outlets such as CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post are broadly expected to report ‘factual’ knowledge. Though bias remains an anticipated obstacle, the fear of consuming fake and fortified information has increasingly become an everyday concern.

Politicians such as US President Donald Trump have used the idea of ‘fake news’ as a shield, hiding from pointed questions and accusations. Widely criticised for his erratic foreign policy proposals, Trump has repeatedly sought to shift the blame from himself onto other politicians and governmental organisations. In February, Trump accused intelligence agencies of producing conspiracy theories over his administration’s relationship with Russia. According to Trump, ‘This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.’ Just as Trump uses fake news as a scapegoat for his political missteps, countries such as Russia have been thought to use fake news to their advantage, influencing foreign elections. This tie to ‘Cold War Russia’ methods of control and power lead many to believe Russia actively tampered with the US elections and most recently occurring in March, the Dutch elections, according to the annual report of the Dutch intelligence service (AIVD). Rob Bertholee, head of the AIVD, states, ‘I think they have tried to push voters in the wrong direction by spreading news items that are not true, or partially true.’ Following with the AIVD accusation, the threat from Russia to the Netherlands and the whole of European politics is significantly higher compared to that of a year ago, endangering the legitimacy of global elections.

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Despite the fear of fake news affecting the political stability of nations, fake news is also transforming the capacity of education. According to a poll conducted by CNN, 44 per cent of teenagers said they could tell the difference between fake news stories and real news. However, ironically more than 30 per cent admitted they shared a news story online, thinking it was legitimate only later to find out it was inaccurate and fabricated. This inability to decipher valid from contrived news is currently impacting political, economic, and social stability globally. From voting on false pretences such as in the recent Dutch elections, to allowing politicians like Trump to hide behind their accusations, measures and precautions need to be taken. The battleground and audience of choice? Schools and students.

As a precautionary measure, many schools are pushing the importance of media literacy classes due to the growing global threat. In Sweden, students as young as ten years old are instructed and taught strategies regarding how to consume and interpret news. In the Czech Republic, high schools teach teenagers how to sort fact from fiction in terms of Russian propaganda pushed into the Czech Republic. In the United States, tactics for combating the on-going political upheaval of fake news have also been applied in various states throughout the country. As seen in Alexis Gerard’s classroom in Germantown, Maryland students are being taught how to sift through news and become educated consumers. Gerard’s students at Clemenete Middle School were given a printed article about a light topic: Jennifer Aniston. The students were then made to read the article, and highlight warning signs they thought seemed out of order or alarming. By starting with a fake news story regarding celebrities, students were eased in the reality of the oblivion of the media, and the horrors it has in store for the future of journalism. Seeing the merit and impact these small lessons and exercises can have at combating ignorance of future generations in regards to media: more US states are taking action. The non-profit, The News Literacy Project, has created a course that teachers from California to Virginia are adding to their classrooms. The course includes a ten-question checklist for identifying fake news. Students are taught to identify red flags such as tone, titles in all capitalisation, sensational language, excessive punctuation, and credibility of the publisher. Patricia Hunt, teaching at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia says students are learning how to evaluate sources for academic credibility so therefore checking and learning how to evaluate for news credibility is a natural step. Legislators in states like Pennsylvania are also attempting to add mandatory media literacy classes to all public school curriculums.

As wisely stated by Hunt, ‘Question what you hear. Question authority. Question the perspective. Question the sources.’ By teaching this generation how to critically question the sources, news, and updates they are being exposed to, the chance of eliminating harmful smokescreens increases. Left unchecked, the field of journalism will become meaningless. Recognising this need for change and giving hope for the future, news outlets have tried to combat fake news creating websites and fact-checking systems. Sites such as Snopes and FactCheck.org are used to cross check stories and sources, assessing for validity. Likewise, social media corporations such as Facebook are spearheading ‘News Integrity Initiatives’. Facebook has most recently invested $14 million in a News Integrity Initiative held in the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow-Knight Centre for Entrepreneurial Journalism. They have over 25 funders and participants, some of which include, Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Tow Foundation, AppNexus, Mozilla and Betaworks. With corporations like Facebook acknowledging the issue of fake news and taking a public stance against the issue, the world is showing its resilience readiness to fight the issue at hand.

In 2017, communication and knowledge are the world’s most powerful weapons. Through means of education, the crisis of fake news can be dealt with in a way that gives future generations the tools to identify mistakes and wrong inferences made in the media. In the face of on-going threats to political legitimacy, it is crucial that institutions around the world take a stance on the issue, holding mandatory literacy media courses for students around the world. With the youth learning to respect and mimic authority, the journalists hold power: power to form ideas, shape minds, and spark movements. Without effective checks and balances, these stories and articles can upend society as we know it.

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