Friday, 17 February 2017

Recognising Fake news, the need for media literacy #digitalliteracy #literacy #education

I was working on a blogpost on books focusing on EdTech people (the woman, the tasks…), but then I opened up YouTube and I saw that president Trump had his first solo press conference.

I guess we can all benefit from Mike Caulfield's ebook (127 page) on web literacy for students (online version) or here for other versions including pdf), a fabulous book with lots of links and useful actions to become (more) web literate (thank you Stephen Downes for bringing it to my attention). 

After watching it, I thought there was a clear need (for me as an avid supporter of education) to refer to initiatives on the topic of real and fake news, because honestly I do not mind if someone calls something fake or real, as long is that statement is followed by clear arguments describing what you think is fake about it, and why. Before doing that, I want to share the reason for this shift in attention.

I love Amerika, for several reasons: where Europe stays divided, the United States have managed to get its nations to work together, while leaving enough federal freedom to adapt specific topics according to individual nation’s believes; I have worked and honestly like to work with Americans (of all backgrounds) and American organisations, truly I am in complete awe of the Bill of Rights, and the way the constitution is securing freedom for all. I know that a goal as ‘freedom for all’ is difficult to attain, but at least it is an openly set vision, put on paper. I mean, I truly respect such strong incentive to promote freedom for all citizens within a legal framework and the will to achieve that freedom. And due to this love for the United States, I felt that Trump is okay. In democratic freedom, the outcome might not be of anyone’s liking, but … history has shown that democratic freedom can swing in a lot of ways and that it this diversity nurtures new ideas and insights along the way.

However, while watching the press conference I got more and more surprised by what was said and how: there were clear discriminatory references, which I do not think befit a President of all the American people. But okay, to each his own and rhetorical styles can differ (wow, can they differ), but the ongoing remark and reference on Fake News that kept coming up as an excuse and used as a non-sequitur at any point during the press conference just got to me. Manipulation has many faces, and only education can help built critical minds that will be able to judge for themselves, and as such be able to distinguish real from fake news. To me, even if you refer to ‘this is fake news’, I want to hear just exactly what you mean: which part of what news is fake and why. Enlighten me would be the general idea.  

Fake news and believing it: status
A Stanford study released in November 2016, concluded that 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. Which seems to indicate that somewhere we are not addressing media or digital literacy very well. On the reasons why this lack of media literacy is occuring, I like the viewpoint of Crystle Martin who looks at misinformation and warcraft in this article; saying:
Teaching information literacy, the process of determining the quality and source of information, has been an emphasis of the American Association of School Librarians for decades. However, teaching of information literacy in school has declined as the number of librarians in schools has declined.
Luckily, there are some opinions and initiatives on distinguishing between fake and real news. Danah Boyd had another look at the history of media literacy, focusing on the cultural context of information consumption that were created over the last 30 years. Danah shared her conclusions in a blogpost on 17 January 2017, entitled 'Did media literacy backfire?' She concluded that media literacy had backfired, in part as it was built upon assumptions (e.g. only media X, Y and Z deliver real news) which often does not relate to the thinking of groups of people that prefer other news sites A, B and C.  

Danah describes it very well:
Think about how this might play out in communities where the “liberal media” is viewed with disdain as an untrustworthy source of information…or in those where science is seen as contradicting the knowledge of religious people…or where degrees are viewed as a weapon of the elite to justify oppression of working people. Needless to say, not everyone agrees on what makes a trusted source.
The cultural and ethical logic each of us has, is instilled in us from a very early age. This also means we look upon specific thinking as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. And to be honest, I do not feel this cultural/ethical mind set will deter all of us from being able to become truly media literate. As long as we talk to people across the board. As long as colliding thoughts fuel a dialogue, we will learn from each other and be able to understand each other in better ways (yes, I am one of those people that think that dialogue helps learning, and results in increased understanding, thank you Socrates).
If this is the case, than we need to do a better job of improving media literacy, including listening to people with other opinions and how they see it. It is a bit like the old days, where the people from the neighborhood go to the pub, the barbershop, or any get together were people with different opinions meet, yet feel appreciated even during heated debates.  

Maha Bali, in her blogpost “Fake news, not your main problem” touches on the difficulty of understanding all levels of the reports provided in the news and other media. Sometimes it does demand intellectual background (take the Guardian, I often have to look up definitions, historical fragments etc. to understand a full article, it is tough on time and tough to get through, but … sometimes I think it is worth the effort). Maha Bali is a prolific, and very knowledgeable researcher/educator. She touches on the philosophical implication of ‘post-truth’ and if you are interested, her thesis subject on critical thinking (which she refers to in her blogpost) will probably be a wonderful read (too difficult for me). So, both Maha and Danah refer to the personal being not only political, but also coloring each of our personal critical media literacies. 

If media literacy depends on personally developing skills to distinguish fake (with some truth in it) from real (with some lies in it), I gladly refer to some guidelines provided by Stephen Downes, as they are personal. One of the statements I would think is pivotal to distinguish between fake and real news, is understanding that truth is not limited to one or more media papers/sites/organisations, it is about analysing one bit of news at a time. It is not the organisation that is authoritative at all times, it is the single news item that is true or at least as real as it can get. So, here is a list of actions put forward by Stephen Downes on detecting fake news : Trust no one, look for the direct evidence (verification, confirmation, replication, falsification), avoid error (with major sources of error being: prediction, relevance, precision, perspective), take names (based on trust, evidence and errors), and as a final rule he suggests to diversify in sources (which I really believe in, the pub analogy). 

Another personal take on detecting fake news comes from Tim O'Reilly who describes a personal story, and while doing so he sheds some light on how an algorithm might be involved. 

Thinking about algorithms, you can also turn to some fake news detectors:

The BS detector: a fabulous extension to the Mozilla browser. Looks at extreme bias, conspiracy theory, junk science, hate group, clickbait, rumor mill…

Snopes: started out as a website focused on detecting urban legends, and turned into an amazing fact checking website (amazing as you can follow the process of how they look at a specific item and then decide whether it is fake).  (

And finally, for those who like to become practical asap: a lesson plan on fake news provided by KQED

In my view, the increase in accepting the idea of fake news is related to the increased divide within society. So, in a way I agree with Danah Boyd: we read and agree with specific people and news sources, and so we filter our sources to those people and media. Seldom do we read up on sources from media we do not agree with, or people we disagree with. It used to be different, as discussions around specific topics were discussed in our community, with a mix of ideas and preferences.
So maybe media literacy could be done on a community level, where everyone gets together and shares their opinion on certain topics. We recreate the local pub or cafĂ©, where everyone meets and gets into arguments on what they believe (or not). Media literacy – to me – is about embracing diversity of opinion, listening, seeing the arguments from the other side and … making up your own mind again.

So, coming back to president Trumps referencing to fake news. In terms of increasing media literacy, I do not have a problem with referencing to something that is seen as fake news, I do have a problem with that fact not being explained: what is fake about it? Why? And again, with saying that, I mean a real explanation, not simply repeating ‘this is fake news. It is. I tell you it is’ (feel free to imagine the tone of voice that such a sentence might be delivered in), now give me the facts, because I do want to know why you or anyone else is labeling something as true or false.