Fake News – A Multifaceted problem

I wrote this about a year ago and for some reason never hit publish…anyway, here:


There is an increasing concern regarding the prominence of claims of dubious credibility on the internet, and students’ abilities to make these credibility judgements. The concern is two-fold: first, that the internet has made it easier to spread information, while simultaneously stripping that information of important contextual features (such as provenance); second, that students ‘nowadays’ are particularly susceptible to faulty beliefs in their dealings with information in the world. In my line of research, we’d say that they fail to engage a cognitive faculty we call ‘epistemic cognition’. Tackling the issue requires understanding it from multiple angles.

First, we need some clarity around the issue. Although it was widely reported that students could not distinguish ‘fake news’ from ‘real’, the concept ‘fake news’ is so broad as to be useless. In fact, the researchers found – concerningly – that students failed to distinguish appropriately between sponsored advertorial content, and journalistic copy. It is also worth noting that this problem is by no means unique to younger people. People have a poor understanding of how to process the various genres of writing they may encounter, for us to tackle this problem we need nuance regarding these types of writing, so that we can support people in making meaning from advertisements, journalistic content, and known propaganda sources. Similarly, when talking about echo chambers and filter bubbles, we need to be clear to what extent our concern is about algorithms dictating our reading, versus long-standing concerns regarding exposure to (and engagement with) other’s views (as I discussed here).

Second, publishers must take responsibility for how they distinguish source types, supporting readers to grasp the intent of articles. In the Stanford study, the headline finding that was most reported was that students could not distinguish between sponsored and journalistic articles. But that is precisely the point of modern native advertising – to blend advertising into a publication for seamless integration (and reader’s eyes). This trend is not uncontroversial (e.g. Conversation discussions), and clearly there is a role for regulation in ensuring that readers are not misled, not only because they might  be misled by specific content, but because it reduces trust in the system as a whole. Indeed, in the UK regulators censured Buzzfeed over misleading ‘advertorial’ content.

Publishers must also take responsibility for the material they publish, and avoid status quo reinforcing false-balance. This issue is most prominent in climate change coverage, and has no doubt delayed our collective response; clear identification of front group sources is a key issue here, where pseudo-scientific neutral sounding groups are funded by interest groups amplifying contrarian perspectives. In cases where due care is not taken to avoid publication of inaccurate information, and to distinguish comment clearly from fact, in theory regulators may play a role, although in practice this rarely happens – as discussed in this excellent New Scientist piece.  There have been calls to ensure that when newspapers print errors, that their corrections receive equivalent prominence and space. Again, there is an issue of trust here, and as Peter Preston flags, there are no easy answers – newspapers must be free to publish material in good faith, and where inaccuracies are flagged it is not always obvious what the appropriate weight for a response should be.  The concern is that, as is the case with scientific publications, the publication of initial claims about which there is competing (although not always equal) evidence, alongside wider misconceptions regarding the nature of scientific research, leads to a growing mistrust in traditional gatekeepers of knowledge (‘the experts’).

Finally, as educators we must understand the role of literacy in how people deal with issues of credibility across multiple sources (as I discussed here). We need to build the skills and knowledge required to appropriately process and take meaning from a source, and to connect the claims (and evidence provided for those claims) in one source to other corroborating or competing sources. Wineburg’s Stanford study builds on decades of work on ‘thinking like a historian’, investigating how historians critically analyse sources. Other researchers have investigated whether students in fact do critique sources as they encounter them, and how we can encourage them to do this more, without over-reliance on surface features such as search-rank and domain names (such as .org and .edu). The good news is that students are indeed capable of such evaluative literacy, particularly when prompted. More research is needed to understand how to support weaker students in developing these skills. Recent research flags the importance of:

  1. Encouraging students to consider their evidence, and its certainty against the particular claims or hypotheses being asserted
  2. Engaging students with argumentation
  3. Open discussion around Multiple perspectives (and the evidence on which they are founded)

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