The proliferation of dis-information (deliberate creation and dissemination of false information) and mis-information (inadvertent sharing of false information online), combined with the insular effects of self-reinforcing algorithms employed by social media create ideal conditions for hyperpartisanship, preventing users from being exposed to wider information and differing viewpoints.2
So-called “fake news” not only makes citizens less well informed, it is, as journalist and historian Neal Gabler states, “…an assault on the very principle of truth itself…And because a democracy relies on truth…fake news is an assault on democracy as well.”3 Researchers at First Draft, an international nonprofit “working to address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age,” further note that despite increased awareness, response to the problem still does not fully account for how convoluted and far-reaching it actually is:
The debate about mis- and dis-information has intensified, but…we’re still failing to appreciate the complexity of the phenomenon at hand—in terms of its global scale, the nuances between behavior on different communication platforms (both closed and open) and the fact that information consumption is not rational, but driven by powerful emotional forces.4
Digital media experts, legislative bodies, and social media companies have all proposed solutions to address the “fake news” problem, from third party fact-checking and flagging items determined to be “fake” to adjusting algorithms to expose users to a broader selection of news stories and increased presence for reliable sources.5 Some of these solutions have been enacted with a modicum of success, but they do little to address a more fundamental issue—the general lack of critical media literacy skills and dearth of civic online reasoning among internet users, especially the young. In a recent study conducted by Stanford History Education Group, researchers found “a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet.”6
A fuller, more sustainable approach to addressing this issue should involve a deeper commitment to humanities-derived media literacy which can help mitigate the effects of dis-information and reduce citizen’s vulnerability by arming them with stronger critical skills to help them discern falsehoods, recognize bias and misrepresentation, encourage them to question sources, evaluate textual and visual content more carefully, contextualize “news” with historical knowledge, and more easily recognize the rhetorical strategies being employed.
To this end, organizations such as the Stanford History Education Group and the National Association for Media Literacy Education and scholars such as Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West at the University of Washington have developed a variety of curricular and pedagogical resources. The National Humanities Center has also produced several resources for teachers including webinars on combating misinformation with humanities-inspired data reasoning and teaching historical understanding in the digital age. Later this fall, the Center will also introduce an intensive online course on how the humanities can help develop critical media literacy.
- A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center found that nearly 30% of U.S. adults received their news from Facebook and that nearly half of users have shared news stories, images or video on the site.
- Bakir, Vian, and Andrew McStay. “Fake News and the Economy of Emotions: Problems, Causes, Solutions.” Digital Journalism 6, no. 2 (2018): 159–62.
- Gabler, Neal. “Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News?” BillMoyers.com, November 30, 2016.
- Wardle, Claire and Derakhshan, Hossein. “One Year On, We’re Still not Recognizing the Complexity of Information Disorder Online.” First Draft, October 31, 2017.
- Bakir, Vian, and Andrew McStay. “Fake News and the Economy of Emotions: Problems, Causes, Solutions.” Digital Journalism 6, no. 2 (2018): 162–68.
- Donald, Brooke. “Stanford Researchers Find Students Have Trouble Judging the Credibility of Information Online.” Stanford Graduate School of Education, November 22, 2016.
Find out how you can get informed, get involved, and take action on this and other issues.
What experts are saying:
- Gallagher, Brian, and Kevin Berger. “Why Misinformation Is About Who You Trust, Not What You Think.” Nautilus, May 26, 2021.
- Blake, Michael. “Why Bullshit Hurts Democracy More Than Lies.” The Conversation, May 14, 2018.
- Galeotti, Mark. “Putin Is Waging Information Warfare. Here’s How To Fight Back.” The New York Times, December 14, 2016.
- Levin, Kevin. “The Remedy for the Spread of Fake News? History Teachers.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 6, 2016.
- Warner, Gregory. Ukraine vs Fake News. Rough Translation podcast, June 27, 2018.
- Hampton, Timothy. “Fake News and Humanities Education.” BerkeleyBlog, August 9, 2018.
- Virden, Dick. “A Media Journey: From Edward R. Murrow to Fake News.” American Diplomacy, November 2018.
Research & Resources
Materials for further exploration:
- (PRESS)ed podcast
- Bradshaw, Samantha, and Philip N. Howard. The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation Working Paper 2019.2. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda, 2019.
- Polizzi, Gianfranco. “Critical Digital Literacy: Ten Key Readings For Our Distrustful Media Age.” Media Policy Project blog, London School of Economics and Political Science, December 15, 2017.
- [M|D]isinformation Reading List
- Bergstrom, Carl T., and Jevin West. CallingBullshit.org.
- Wardle, Claire, and Hossein Derakhshan. Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making. Council of Europe, 2017.
- Anderson, Monica, and Andrea Caumont. “How Social Media is Reshaping News.” Pew Research Center, 2014.
- Wineburg, Sam, Sarah McGrew, Joel Breakstone, and Teresa Ortega. Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, 2016.
- Stanford History Education Group
- National Association for Media Literacy Education