Teaching Students in the Wave of Fake News
For instructors, "fake news"—and its infiltration of our shared lexicon—has posed several serious problems to our students and our courses.
First, there is the way the phrase is thrown around. In the cable news sense, it has become a rhetorical stance: an ad hominem dismissal for any content one dislikes. Rather than engage with an argument, those who cry "fake news" can only offer wholesale annulment. A rejoinder to critical thinking, its use is especially galling and difficult for those of us who teach courses that require complication and counterargument. Should our crafty (or obstinate) students start labeling sources and information as "fake news," we’d have a true dilemma on our hands—an academic dead-end. As we prompt them toward complicated thought, the rhetorical climate beyond the college campus is strengthening cognitive bias, impeding intellectual exchange, and cementing preconceived notions.
Second, of course, there is the problem of "fake news" itself—and our withering ability to separate fact from fiction. The evaluation of sources has long been a cornerstone of critical thinking and academic writing. However, with the advent of the Internet, the transmission of information has become not only more rapid but also more difficult to discern; in response, we instructors struggle to recalibrate our approach to teaching critical thinking.
Part of our problem is a lack of awareness. When someone learns to evaluate information solely for an academic project, he or she engages with a controlled collection of texts and—more importantly—asks only the most superficial questions about authority and accuracy. This model provides students with a useful start, but does precious little to hone their evaluative skills in any practical, real-world sense. Inadvertently, we’ve taught them that credibility is something you can tell just by looking. As "fake news" evolves to mimic credibility, disguising opinion as fact and prejudice as objectivity, it moves beyond the jurisdiction of the classroom and library and into our students’ everyday lives.
This disconnect, between the syllabus and the "real world", has lately inspired me to make a change.
* * * * *
It’s a Tuesday morning in our first-year composition class and I, desperate to warn my students against unreliable sources, have been boring them for fifteen minutes straight. Their eyes are glazing over. Even the politest students are not-so-discreetly checking their cell phones—and I can’t say that I blame them.
This is one of those lessons (What is information literacy?) that I’ve never been able to get right. My handouts are relics—photocopied checklists handed down from librarian to instructor, since I assume the dawn of time (or at least the dawn of Comp 101)—and I can think of no way to jazz them up. Not even listening to my own lecture, I wonder if the problem is a lack of interactivity.
Maybe I should add tap dancing. Jazz hands. Anything to spice this up.
As I move on to listing the inadequacies of Wikipedia, a student in the back row raises his hand and, acting as ambassador for his classmates, tells me that they learn "this" every year. "MLA," he says. "Peer-reviewed articles. How to use the library databases. Every time we have to write a research paper." Nearly everyone else nods in agreement. We know. Been there, done that, don’t plagiarize. Got it.
Frustrated by my inability to engage them, I throw up my hands. "Okay" I say, "we are scraping what’s on the syllabus. Let’s just talk honestly about evaluating information." They seem nonplussed.
"Professor," the boy in the back says, "we know what’s fake news and what isn’t."
The term draws a few laughs: "fake news." It’s been everywhere lately. I’ve almost forgotten its literal meaning: "fake" as in unreliable, factually dubious. "Are you sure?" I ask. "Fake stories are all over Facebook and Twitter—and they very likely swayed the outcome of our election. It’s not something you encounter only when writing a research paper."
Instead of using the department-sanctioned pedagogy, I veer. "Look," I say, "Does anyone in here think they’re ever going to need to know this beyond this classroom?" Crickets. "Nah."
The problem with my lessons becomes clear.
Inspired, I walk to the classroom computer and log in to Facebook. My students are giggly with unease—riveted. I have suddenly, unthinkingly given them a glimpse in to the forbidden…my personal life. They are seeing my News Feed and all that comes with it—friends sharing GIFs from The Babadook, cooking demos from Tasty, and long, heated political debates. Navigating a few political exchanges, my students are shocked by the vitriol and outrage—to say nothing of unsavory language. Together, we read aloud, laughing and sighing together, marveling at the casual racism, applauding the sickest burns.
Then I ask my students to zero in on the articles that commenters are so readily sharing as "proof" of their claims. We read. The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are—according to a recent study—Democrats. Hillary Clinton once sold weapons to ISIS while also, allegedly, murdering dozens of her political enemies. Melania Trump had been replaced by a lookalike—just look at these before-and-after shots!
At some point, I ask: "Would any of you feel comfortable trusting these articles, 100%?"
This is, of course, the easiest question to answer. My students know—abstractly, as a kind of truism—that they should never reflexively suspend their skepticism. "What is it about these sources that makes you dubious?"
Here, the students employ a mix of common sense and remembered snatches of library instruction. They point out the tabloid sensationalism of the articles in question, the editorializing headlines, the whiffs of paranoia and conspiracy theory. For a few minutes, the room takes on a prosecutorial feeling. If I let this go on for too long, my students will start to believe that this is the chief goal of evaluating sources: exposing the fraudulent. "When faced with conflicting perspectives, to what degree should we keep an open mind?"
My students don’t usually know how to respond. They’ve been taught to think in absolutes, that you can spot the truthfulness of something just by looking. In more traditional modes of library instruction, the article with the typos is also the one brimming with lies; the author with fewer credentials is more likely to muck it up; and a wealth of citation is more credible than a lack. In my classroom, however, the goal is always complication. I ask my students why they assume a typographically clean essay is more reliably "true" than an ungrammatical one—or why a blog post appears less reputable than an article in The Economist.
There are, of course, good answers to these questions. Sentence-level errors can indicate muddled thinking. The information one finds in periodicals is usually vetted by a chain of editorial command—not so with blogs. Nevertheless, whatever the response, the questions are the point. I want my students to understand that, in 2018, authority may be demonstrated in diverse ways, often in spite of informal costuming.
This rethinking is absolutely essential to any discussion of information literacy. Many of the articles we find, loathsome though they may be, lack the obvious red flags: no author, no attribution, no spelling errors, or dead hyperlinks. It occurs to me that they can’t be asked to label a source "unreliable" without first examining the motivations of the author and content creators. While it’s sometimes difficult to discern the motivations of an unknowable author, Facebook makes it easy to uncover the motivations of the person sharing the article. After checking out their previous posts, photos, and biographical information, I ask:
- How does this article support the sharer’s worldview?
- Are there noticeable flaws in this argument that the sharer might be willing to overlook?
- What does the sharer gain by weaponizing this article in a Facebook fight?
The goal is to get my students thinking about bias. Often, we find out, they lack the context—political, cultural, ideological—to evaluate information beyond its superficial packaging. There is a tendency to treat texts as vacuum-sealed—and a failure to view them as part of an ongoing (or, perhaps, never-ending) cultural conversation. Without this necessary context, my students can only spot the most explicit biases.
One meme, for example, shared by a conservative friend of mine, outs Starbucks for being "anti- military." The supposed evidence of this comes in the form of an email (written by Sgt. Howard C. Wright):
"Recently Marines over in Iraq supporting this country in OIF wrote to Starbucks because they wanted to let them know how much they liked their coffee and try to score some free coffee grounds. Starbucks write back telling the Marines thanks for their support in their business, but that they don’t support the War and anyone in it and that they won’t send them the Coffee."
My students instantly determine the meme’s purpose ("we should not support in buying") but their initial impression does nothing to determine if it’s a false or accurate statement. It’s only when prompted to do a quick Google search on this information that they learn more. When Sgt. Wright learned the story was false—they tell me, reading from Snopes—he issued a retraction, but that obviously hasn’t stopped the meme from being shared on social media. As it turns out, it’s been winding its way around the Internet for 12 years.
When I ask them if there is any bias—in the sharer, if not the author—they answer immediately: "Pro-military."
"But why?" I ask. "What’s to be gained by this?" Silence, for a moment—then, the slow raising of hands.
"Maybe this person...can’t afford Starbucks every day?"
"Are Starbucks and the military on opposite ends of some argument?"
"But even if you hated Starbucks, you’d have to overlook a lot to share this meme."
"Is she wanting to draw a line in the sand between people who support the troops and people who drink Starbucks?"
"Didn’t the CEO of Starbucks say something against Donald Trump?"
The more the students grope around for answers, sharing tidbits of cultural knowledge, the closer they come to uncovering implicit bias. Read alongside the sharer’s other posts—her disdain for Oprah and "elitist Hollywood," jokey GIFs about "needing a vacation" and "life in the service industry"—the class begins to make guesses about the meme’s purpose and the worldview it confirms for the sharer. (In the interest of symmetry, we conduct the same experiment on a false article—shared by a liberal friend—about Donald Trump groping RuPaul in the 90s.)
As our session wraps, I remind my students that if they want to be "information literate," they’ll need to imagine scholarly sources this way—not only by thinking critically about the text, but by examining the motivations and perspectives that inform the text by thinking critically of not only the source but the motivations and background perspectives behind that source. "Remember," I shout as they run out the door, "Until you look at the larger context—taking into account the biases that shade and motivate a person’s argument—you’ve only done a fraction of the work."