“How to combat fake news and disinformation,” a recent Brookings Institution report, is a welcome if somewhat timid addition to a critical public dialogue, one that I’d argue goes to the heart of the viability of our political system. That is, if you’re not so jaded that you no longer accept that an “educated public” — individuals with the capacity to think critically, evaluate information, and question authority — is the foundation of a healthy democracy.
The author, Darrell West, starts with the obvious, journalism is in flux, and leads up to his recommendations by reporting on a series of polls and developments in news media and technology that are reshaping our expectations and behaviors. His recommendations are made in the right categories, though I’d argue some are naive while others not so workable. Still, it’s a thoughtful proposal that needs more conversation and could help inspire change.
First, some background.
Social media and other digital platforms have created more ways to share information instantaneously. The vast majority of us now get our news— and an avalanche of pictures, cat videos and snarky comments, all under the umbrella of “content”— from friends, family, co-workers, and yes, bots, through online sharing.
That’s great, and (mostly) democratic at its core. However, the technology also carries an onslaught of misinformation and ‘fake news,’ influencing how we interpret events around us.
West also reports on the free fall in the public’s trust of traditional media. This is not new, sadly, but the precipitous decline, while justified in some cases, spells real danger for democracy.
Much of the public’s mistrust is directed at corporate-owned outlets, specifically cable news (whose business is to cater to specific ideologies) and a few larger newspapers. The good news is most readers are more apt to believe their local paper. But without the Fourth Estate, and all the time, resources, and people it takes to report and investigate, we wouldn’t learn half of what government and major corporations prefer to hide.
Setting aside the widespread media mistrust, the social/cultural transformation we’re experiencing is far more complicated, fueled by our own cognitive capacity and predilections. The conflation of “content” and news available 24/7, are combining with new behaviors we’ve adopted — information sharing through platforms and devices that supercharge our addiction to staying up to the minute — and our deeply human albeit largely unrecognized prejudices. To complicate matters further, we apparently still believe most of what we read.
Put simply: We’re in a bad place.
Our prejudices get reinforced by information shared among trusted sources and are further bolstered by algorithms based on our online behaviors, resulting in a steady diet of reinforcing content streaming through our devices. Meanwhile we still hold that the printed word is “true,” even if we feel some tug of skepticism as we read. To make matters worse: These new habits are layered on top of our basic albeit flawed human predilection to accept what reinforces our own beliefs and biases.
So the 21st century has brought us the tools to build a far more nuanced view of the world but it takes a whole lot more work, intellectually and cognitively, to sift through incongruent ideas, let alone critically evaluate them. But who has the time and the bandwidth?
And now what? There’s no turning back. West proposes a grab bag of fixes in the realms of government, news industry, tech companies, educational institutions and individual behaviors.
Here are the best takeaways: 1) The onus is on each of us to read skeptically, regardless of who’s sharing, or the source. 2) Our public education system has got to get back to teaching critical thinking skills. Can’t say this enough. 3) His smartest tech recommendation: “Algorithms are powerful vehicles in the digital era and help shape people’s quest for information and how they find online material. They can also help with automatic hoax detection, and there are ways to identify fake news to educate readers without censoring it.”
(Newsflash: There is a new app for that. But it’s still up to us to read and question.)
No it’s not just the bots, though the disinformation campaign that tainted the 2016 election provides a cautionary tale. It’s not even the tyranny of Twitter. It’s the whole messy mix West describes and then some. Yes, it is exponentially harder to be the informed, educated citizens we need to be. But our future depends on it.
Read the report and talk about it.
Suzanne Donovan, a journalist and advocate for a free press, was assistant metro editor at a regional daily in Georgia before moving to Minnesota.
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