In The Fight Against Fake News, Digital Literacy May Not Be The Answer

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Has the explosion of publicity around “fake news” and its role in the 2016 presidential election finally led to a healthy course correction? There are signs that this could be the case: social media platforms such as Facebook have begun flagging hoaxes and fake news. There’s been a surge in interest in digital literacy. And perhaps most important, many educators have agreed on the urgent need to improve their students’ critical thinking skills.

So the fake news pendulum has started to swing the other way, right? Maybe…but Ethan Zuckerman is not convinced.

Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media and associate professor of the Practice in Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lays out his concerns about the impact of fake news on American society in the latest episode of Dig Deeper, MindEdge Learning’s occasional podcast on critical thinking and digital literacy.

The central problem, Zuckerman argues, is that one of the supposed antidotes to fake news – increased digital literacy – doesn’t always work in today’s hyper-partisan political environment. “We tell people to triangulate, look for a piece of information from at least three different sources,” he notes. “And what’s problematic about that is that depending on what you’re searching for, you might find three sources all repeating an untruth.”

As an example, Zuckerman cites the “Pizzagate” controversy – the bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory, spread by InfoWars and other websites aligned with the alt-right, that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager and other prominent Democrats were involved in a child-sex ring being run out of the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria. The mainstream media never mentioned the controversy until just before the election, but it was cited frequently by alt-right and conspiracy-theory sites. The result? Anyone who Googled this issue last October would find it mentioned favorably by multiple online sources, and not contradicted anywhere – “triangulation,” and then some.

This disjunction between the “news” covered by some sites, but left uncovered by others, is the result of the strong partisanship that characterizes today’s online political discourse. Last year Zuckerman and his team tried to map out the partisan contours of Internet news, to see which online media sources are most trusted overall, and which score highest among those on both the left and right.

Three mainstream media sources – the online sites for CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post – lead the most-trusted list. But not far behind are four sites “built and born for the digital age”: Politico, HuffPost, the Hill, and Breitbart. Less influential, at least among online users, are some traditional outlets that nonetheless retain high credibility offline, including Fox News and NPR. Lagging far behind are the major broadcast networks: “NBC News is almost as influential as Mashable,” Zuckerman observes drily. “It’s not quite as influential as the Daily Caller.”

Perhaps the most striking finding of this project, Zuckerman says, is the outsize influence of extremely hard-right news sites among conservatives:

“What we found out is that the center-right in the US had disappeared. Traditionally right-wing sources, even hard-right sources like the National Review, the Wall Street Journal – those end up registering as centrist sources on our map. They’re actually getting attention from both the left and the right,” he observes.

“The stuff that gets attention purely from the right, what we would think of as sort of the hard-core right at this point, that is what people usually respond to as the alt-right,” Zuckerman continues. “It’s Breitbart, it’s Daily Caller, it’s InfoWars, it’s a lot of these sites that many of us in the fact-based community dismiss. But near as we could tell, Breitbart was the sixth-most influential site during the course of our analysis. And it was by far the most influential site towards the right. So the media landscape has really shifted.”

Zuckerman believes that shift will lead to more and more misleading and false content being presented as “news.” And counteracting that trend, he says, will not be easy: “The answer that I want to give you is, read multiple sources, look for original sources, draw your own conclusions, think critically, so on and so forth,” he says. Unfortunately, Zuckerman notes, “people do really badly when they do that.”

Instead he argues, uneasily, that Americans have little choice but to put their faith in established media organizations. “Tragically, my advice to people now is not to give in to their skepticism – it’s to trust,” he says. “It’s to assume that a lot of those mainstream media organizations have it right the vast majority of the time.”

Still, Zuckerman isn’t sure that this trust will be enough to bring back a healthy media and political culture. “It would take a lot of work,” he admits, “to turn me into an optimist at this particular moment in time.”