Media and Society

The events of the past couple of weeks has shown the negative impact that social media and “fake news” can have on society. The events reinforce the need for educators to teach students how to discern fake news from factual news, how to research information, and how to recognize when social media is being used as a propaganda tool.

As educators, preparing students to be productive, informed citizens includes teaching them how to recognize fake news and what constitutes credible sources. Both of these are part of our curriculum on the Summit Platform. Students are taught that not everything on the internet or posted on social media is factual news or supported by credible factual information. There are specific ways to identify fake news, such as identifying the author of a written piece, looking at the author’s credentials, identifying what sources are cited in the article and are the sources relevant, and identifying where the supporting research was published.

Another way to educate students to recognize fake news on television and radio is recognizing the difference between a commentator and a news journalist. 

  • News journalists must research their stories, providing information from experts and finding the facts that support the story. 

  • Commentators are paid to give their opinion and are not required to provide factual information. 

Adding commentators to the news format came about when news stations started providing 24 hours news. Relying on commentators for news information is misleading as commentators lack the credibility of factual news reporting and truth.

Similarly, obtaining “news” from Facebook also lacks credibility as most often people are expressing their own opinions or forwarding links to information that they have not researched to check the validity of the claims. Under the guise of Freedom of Speech, people post all kinds of things without checking to find out the truth. It is easier to make a comment than to pick up the phone to find out the facts. Schools deal with this frequently as parents post their dissatisfaction on the internet or people post what they heard from someone else – often misinformation - without calling to ask about the issue. These kinds of expressions are often one-sided and void of any validity or truth. Social media was intended to bring people together, but according to the documentary “Social Dilemma” on Netflix, the creators of many of the social media tools - including Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube - state in the film that social media is doing just the opposite. News stations are the same.

News stations are a business so their end goal is to make money. This approach, however, distracts from providing unbiased factual news as each news outlet, be it CNN or Fox News, bends their news coverage toward their political leanings. Commentators for these stations slant their bias toward their political leanings, often providing no news value and focusing on bashing the other side. News journalists for these stations, while providing factual information, lean toward the facts that support their political views. Very few news journalists report news that goes against their stations political leanings. News Journalists are now celebrities in their own right and their continued success is dependent on appeasing their readers, and not necessarily providing factual content. 

Propaganda

Another way educators prepare students to be productive, informed citizens is by teaching them to recognize when social media is being used as a propaganda tool. Propaganda, simply put, is information intended to provoke.. Identifying who is behind the postings is one way to determine if social media is being used to promote propaganda. An article in DigitalTrends (“You’re probably seeing more social media propaganda, but don’t blame the bots,” October 16, 2019), of the 70 countries studied by the University of Oxford, 87% of the propaganda was produced by humans versus bots. The United States ranked high among the nations with “high cyber troop capacity,” meaning that propaganda is a full-time operation using human, bots, and cyborg (mix of human and bots) to create or amplify propaganda, which is often what commentators use as “news.” If students learn to identify when a posting is propaganda, they will be better prepared to understand its purpose and intent, thus making better decisions. As part of the computer science program, students are taught to look for the many propaganda techniques used to inflame or persuade readers to one position or another or of the validity of fake news. 

Finally, understanding our own bias and how those biases can be influenced impacts what we seek out for information. We teach students to look at both sides of an issue when preparing for a debate or presentation. Understanding what the opposition believes is key to presenting a sound argument, or at least preparing for a rebuttal for those arguments. Unfortunately, too often people only seek out information that supports their opinion, which is known as confirmation bias. If we only listen to people who have the same ideas as ourselves, then civil discourse and debate no longer occurs. Understanding often occurs when people share opposing views in a civilized, respectful way. An article on verywellmind.com, “10 Cognitive Bias that Distort Our Thinking,” (January 24, 2020), discusses how a variety of bias impacts how we think about issues. Understanding how these biases shape our decision making can help us make better, informed decisions.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” The goal for educators is to ensure students have the skills to become well-informed citizens. That goal becomes an imperative during the trying times our country is facing.