Fake news

In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared 'post-truth' to be its Word of the Year ... reflecting the recognition that the internet has made possible the massive dissemination of 'news stories' which are at the least unreliable and at worst direct lies. The proliferation of such 'alternative realities' and factoids around the presidential campaign of Donald Trump stimulated urgent research into how such stories come into existence, who creates them and for what purposes.

And as we now know, Trump expanded 'post-truth' into the label 'fake news'.

He started the notion of 'fake news' in the very first press conference after his inauguration, when his press secretary passed on Trump's megalomaniac claim that more people had attended his inauguration than any other president's in history. Journalists checked, and produced solid photographic evidence that there were, in fact, more people arrayed in front of the Capitol for Obama's inauguration - and Trump's reply was to brand that true, verifiable reporting as ... wait for it ... 'fake news'. This worked so well, in his view, that he went on to use the label relentlessly over the four years of his presidency to undermine as 'fake news' any report about the world which did not agree with his own point of view (i.e. his personal fake news).

The news report that forms the basis of this page demonstrates that it is possible to track down fake news to a specific source - and so understand who has told lies, and why. Identifying authors is the essential basis of accountability, and achieving accountability is fundamental to creating responsibility. Society depends on responsibility, because without responsibility you can't have trust.

But is it true?

How do we know that this article is true? If we need to develop a reliable scepticism to what we read in the internet, we should apply it consistently. Accordingly, the task for the students when reading the handout involves identifying what aspects of a news report make it 'convincing' - in other words, that make us tend to accept what it says as true. I suggest that 'convincing' has two important features: elements may be (a) believable, and (b) checkable. I suggest that these two terms are different, and need defining carefully:-

believable - items of information in a report may strike us as... likely ... probable ... vivid ... impressive. This means that the items fit with the view that we already have of the situation / context / subject of the news report, either logically ("likely ... probable") or imaginatively ("vivid ... impressive").

checkable - items of information may be cross-checked with other sources, and taken as true if the same information is confirmed elsewhere. This is fundamental good practice among professional journalists - no story should be taken as true until it has been verified by at least two sources.

And notice that not everything that is 'believable' is 'checkable' - good journalism often contains the subjective experience of the journalist, which may indeed appear in an honest report of what happened, but which may not appear in any other equally honest account.

The two texts supplied in this page are complementary: Fake news 1 gives an explanation of how news is faked in a specific case, and is in itself an example of a news report which should be checked for credibility; and Fake news 2 gives a distilled series of suggestions about how one recognises fake news in the first place.

Fake news 1 - The basic story

I would suggest using this material as follows:-

Step 1 ... give out the first page, the extract from the news report ... get the students to read it, then discuss details of vocabulary and phrasing.

Step 2 ... elicit a summary of the key points of the report - what stories were produced, how, by whom, for which market, and how the money was made. Have an initial discussion about what this story contributes to our view of how the internet influences how we form a view of the world.

Step 3 ... give out the second page, the worksheet, which raises the question 'But is this story true?' - and if so, 'How do we judge it to be true?'. Get the students to work through the examples of details, deciding whether each is 'believable' or 'checkable' ... and most importantly, get them to explain and argue why they have made each decision.

[I provide no markscheme of 'correct answers': the basic answers should be reasonably evident anyway, but the concepts of 'believable' and 'checkable' overlap and are debateable ... so debate them with the students.]

Step 4 ... expanding on the idea of 'checkable', get them to do some checking - to Google some key terms from the story, and see if they are confirmed from other sources, and if so, how precisely. This could well be a small-group activity, leading to reports back, and finally a discussion about how 'true' the whole story is.

Step 5 ... finally, raise the whole principle of the importance of 'truth' in news reporting - does it matter? ... how much? ... why? One would hope that the students would see that truth does indeed matter, for the fundamental reasons set out in the introduction above.

Student access

The page  TASKS Fake news   provides the text Fake news 1 for the students to read outside class - along with the 'believable/checkable' exercise in digital form. A good way for the students to start thinking about the issues before discussion in class.

Fake news 2 - Practical advice

It is worth noting the dates of the two texts in the two handouts. The first, the BBC report, seems to have broken the story to start with, on 5 December 2016 ... and the second, from NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth, is a development from the initial story - it consists of spin-off / commentary / extension.

I would suggest using this material as follows:-

Step 1 ... give out the handout, and get the students to read it quickly in order to get the gist

Step 2 ... ask them to do the exercise of fitting the headings to the appropriate sections (this is a mini skim & summary exercise) ... check the answers, and discuss any disagreements, since a couple of the headings might fit in different places.

[For the record, the answers, as used in the original article, are :- 1. C ....... 2. A ....... 3. E ....... 4. B ........ 5. D ]

Step 3 ... the final exercise requires students to consider other ways of checking the truth of news. They might do this in small groups, and then report back. Explore, and see what they come up with.

Step 4 ... you might consider the task of writing a set of 'truth-testing' guidelines. This could be based on the NBC text, here, but re-written and adapted to be clearer - you might ask for 10 specific instructions, giving detailed actions in specific circumstances. And they should incorporate any new ideas that have come up in Step 3. Suggested audience: the guidelines are to be given out to fellow students.


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