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Expert: Education Is The Only Way To Fight Fake News

Raphael Satter
Screenshots of stories from USA Daily News 24, a fake news site registered in Veles, Macedonia. Both stories shown here are bogus.

Since the presidential election last year, the term “fake news” has been used to discredit news reports, real or otherwise, and to shape public opinion. At times its meaning has become murky. 

To get some clarity, WSHU’s Davis Dunavin spoke with Bill Yousman, assistant professor and director of the Media Literacy and Digital Culture graduate program at Sacred Heart University. They discussed what fake news really is, and why it’s dangerous.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

I don’t know if anybody’s ever set us all down and explained what we mean when we say fake news. What does this actually mean?

Digital technologies have made it easier for anyone to create what looks like a legitimate news story and to disseminate that really widely and easily, that is not based in any facts whatsoever. That’s just kind of made up in their own feverish imagination. And you put it out there and it catches on in a viral kind of way, and next thing you know everyone’s treating it as if it’s an authentic story.

There’s another way the term fake news is being used now. As a weapon against any type of news that someone doesn’t like, that portrays somebody in what might be considered an unfavorable way. You just throw out the term fake news and that delegitimizes it. And says don’t listen to it, don’t give it any credence whatsoever.

And you’re talking about the way Donald Trump uses it.

Yeah. I mean, specifically, but others as well. Others in his administration. And it’s possible that could even catch on and be used more wildly. I think that’s just a continuation of what we’ve heard for a long time about the supposed liberal bias in media, which also has always been very misleading. There is some media that presents a liberal perspective. There’s some media that presents a conservative perspective. But if you paint all media with the same brush, you’re basically saying don’t trust anything. Only trust me. Only trust my voice. And I think that’s where it becomes very dangerous.

So let’s talk about that first type of fake news, especially what we saw during the election, which is when I think most people started to notice it. If you look at what the most popular stories on Facebook were from that period, fake news outperformed real news. People read that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS or that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump.

It seems that something has changed in how we get the news that makes us more vulnerable to its spread. What kind of a role do you think social media plays in this?

You know, they make it easier to spread. They make it easier for things to be packaged in such a way that they look real. I’m not gonna say that social media is the cause of this. Because social media is at least partially dependent upon how we use it.

I do get some news from social media, but what I get is people bringing stories to my attention that come from verified, credible, vetted sources. But then I look into the actual original source itself, rather than just accepting some type of clickbait headline. So I think what the real problem is, is people having a short attention span, and just looking at headlines but never checking what the sources of those headlines are, never looking deeper into, what is this really about? Where is this coming from? Who originated this? What purpose might they have behind it?

We can preach to the choir about this, to an extent. How do we reach people who don’t read the New York Times or listen to NPR or know these skills?

This has to be an educational mandate. There are other countries where media literacy is a regular part of schooling and curriculum from the time children are very young. The United States has been very slow to get on board with that. If this can be a wake up call that we start taking this seriously, that can be a silver lining.

We need to make media literacy mandated, educated, from the time a child enters kindergarten. There are ways you can start talking to kindergarten children – look at how these toys are advertised versus what they’re like when you take them home. If we wait too long, children have already been saturated with media before they even get to school. We’ve shown up too late to a battle that’s already been lost. It’s just as important to teach a child to deconstruct an advertisement or a news story as it is to teach them to deconstruct a poem, for example.

And it’s something that surrounds their life. When you’re thinking how much time they’re spending in it, and nobody from the time they were born ever told them how to use it or indicated that they should learn how to use it – they laugh at the idea that you have to learn how to watch TV.

Right. We take it for granted. One of the things I hear from students all the time is, why take it seriously, it’s just entertainment? Most of that statement is true – the problem isn’t the word entertainment. It is kind of entertaining – like, oh, wow, Hillary Clinton is running a human trafficking operation through a pizza shop in DC? That’s alluring and lurid and fun to consider. The problem isn’t the word entertainment. The problem is the word ‘just.’ The media is very entertaining. They’re also shaping how we see the world. And that’s the reason to take it seriously.

Disclosure: WSHU Reporter Davis Dunavin is also an adjunct professor in the university’s School of Communication and Media Arts.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.