A recently released study from the graduate School of Education at Stanford University engaged 7,800 middle school, high school and college students to evaluate the information they received on the internet. The report said there was a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in the responses from the students, demonstrating an inability to discern information based on whether it originated from activist groups, neutral sources or advertising, and students routinely could not tell the difference between news articles from legitimate sources and unreliable webpages, nor between ostensibly balanced news coverage and opinion pieces.
The aftermath of the recent U.S. presidential election has seen commentators raise alarms over “fake news” – stories planted on social media with the deliberate intent to mislead. Obviously, this is another wrinkle in the whole issue of discerning fact from fiction. Then there is the ability of wholly unchecked assertions to go viral and be taken as fact by hundreds of thousands of people.
The New York Times analyzed one example of how these things can happen. In Austin, Tex., a man with just 40 Twitter followers saw a lineup of buses in downtown Austin on Nov. 9, the day after the election. That evening, crowds gathered in Austin, protesting the election of Donald Trump the night before. The man put two and two together and tweeted that “Anti-Trump protesters in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the buses they came in. #Fakeprotests #Trump2016 #Austin.”
The due diligence the man performed was a Google search to determine whether there were any major conferences being held in Austin and he found none. It turns out the buses were hired by a software company that was holding a conference for more than 13,000 people. Nevertheless, the tweet, which implies that the anti-Trump protesters were bused into town by some nefarious organizer, was shared 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook.
This was an example of a “story” not being adequately researched and proven. It is a slightly different species from the deliberately false “news” stories that popped up during the election with headlines like “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” and “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide.” Both of these, and countless more like them, were intentionally false, yet shared by thousands of people who believed – or wished – them to be true.
Comedian Jon Stewart used to refer to his program The Daily Show as “fake news,” but in fact it was parody and satire, taking a grain of truth and riffing humor and social commentary from it. This differs as well from sites like The Onion or Canada’s The Beaverton, which are not intended to be taken seriously, but sometimes are.
Then there is, to bring it full circle, the forms of legitimate journalism – news and analysis – which are generally well-researched, with facts corroborated and sources verified, but are often received by consumers as something else. In other words, people will take falsified news as fact and decry factual reporting as made-up.
On Sunday, Trump himself tweeted, without a shred of evidence, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” With vote counting (inexplicably) still underway, Trump has easily won the electoral college and, therefore, the presidency, but Hillary Clinton is currently 2.2 million votes ahead of Trump in the popular vote.
This sort of assertion from a sore winner is typical of the man, who seems to lie even when there is no advantage, as if to keep in practice. Throughout the campaign,
Trump routinely told untruths, which helps explain why the Oxford dictionary chose “post-truth” as its international word of the year for 2016.
Tens of millions voted for Trump despite, or possibly because of, his awkward relationship with the truth, suggesting that truth doesn’t matter like we once assumed it did. Or that people don’t care what the truth is, so long as what is said, published or posted conforms to or supports their preexisting opinions. People are willing to hear (or read, say or write) falsehoods and accept them as true if they wish them to be, rather than question their own beliefs or situation at all.
The unwillingness or inability to differentiate truth from fiction has long been a concern. Purveyors of lies – in advertising, politics, daily life – have been doing their deeds for centuries. Yet the ability in the internet age for people to select “news” that supports their worldview, or to be duped by people with agendas, has opened whole new universes of falsehood. Scarier, by far, is the apparent insouciance with which many people approach the issue. Some of us are satisfied with fiction if it suits our preferred version of fact. In such a case, we are not facing a problem of media literacy. We are facing a more serious affront to the very idea of reality.