Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reflects the changing nature of the English language by declaring a “Word of the Year.” In 2013, it was “selfie.” In 2015, for the first time ever, it was not a word but a pictograph-the much-shared “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. In 2016, the word of the year was “post-truth.”
The OED’s choice reflected the disturbing new reality in which “fake news” trumps truth, junk science obscures real research, anonymous trolls spew hatred online, networks of bots manipulate political discourse, 16-year-old Macedonians spin alt-right blog postings for a living, audio and video manipulation can make virtually anybody appear to say anything, and ultimately nobody knows what to believe anymore.
So, what does it mean to search for truth in the post-truth era?
That’s the profound question Ron Darvin asked to kick off his keynote presentation at the PSA Superconference. Darvin, from UBC’s Department of Language and Literacy Education, defined fake news as intentionally false or sensational stories meant to mislead the public. “And,” he added, “we know what fake news is not. It is not real news that you don’t agree with.”
Darvin cautioned that there’s an important distinction between fake news and satire, one that students may not always be aware of. He mentioned The Beaverton in Canada, along with The Onion, and the famous (and often hilarious) Borowitz Report in The New Yorkermagazine. Although Andy Borowitz’s columns are clearly labelled as satire, they have often been republished by major media as real news.
Why do people create fake news? There are many reasons: to spread political propaganda, for a joke, to make money, to have an impact. And sometimes the impact can be significant-such as who gets elected to lead the most powerful country in the world.
Darvin cautioned that Canada is not immune from cyberwarriors. He pointed to propaganda targeting Canadian soldiers in Latvia earlier this year. The Russian-backed smear campaign used photos of a disgraced former commander, now a convicted murderer, posing in women’s underwear to suggest that the Canadian military is full of homosexuals who can’t be relied upon to help the Latvian people.
While this example might be easy to detect as misinformation, it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between real news and fake because purveyors of propaganda have become so sophisticated. For example, Darvin showed two websites-the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians-and challenged teachers to say which one is the credible organization. Both look serious and professional, but the former was founded in 1930 and has 66,000 members while the latter is a fringe group that broke with the AAP over its stance in support of adoption by same-sex couples.
Darvin encouraged teachers to raise awareness of fake news with students, who live so much of their lives online. “After all,” he concluded, “we all play a role in protecting the truth.” He suggested that the best lesson would be to “let kids create their own fake news. Then they quickly learn how easy it is!”
How can we fight fake news?
Advice from Ron Darvin from UBC’s Department of Language and Literacy Education
Probe the source
Authenticate the details
Use fact-checking tools
Substantiate the claims
Evaluate the style
Google the reliability of sources. Search images to see whether they are duplicated from other stories. (Darvin illustrated this with multiple uses of the same shot of a beached giant squid.)
Evaluate punctuation and spelling. If a post is ungrammatical you can be quite sure it is not from a legitimate news outlet.
Cross-examine claims. Darvin showed his students photos of daisies said to have mutated because of nuclear fallout from the Fukushima disaster. Every single student believed it to be authentic news.
Study satire. Even Xinhua, the biggest and most influential media organization in China, has published some of Borowitz’s satirical columns as real news.
An adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
This article was written by Nancy Knickerbocker and was originally published in the November/December 2017 edition of Teacher magazine. Photo credit: Scrabble, istock.com/jax10289,