‘Children must be trained to fight fake news’

Paper-thin? Few reporters are stationed in Syria, making it harder to know what is true there.

Fake news, propaganda, misinformation: the media, says one prominent journalist, has reached its ‘nadir’. And another columnist says children should be taught to separate fact from fiction.

Scores of civilians were burned alive. Twenty women committed suicide to avoid being raped. Government forces killed 82 civilians.

These stories were reported in the Western media during the siege of Aleppo, in Syria, in December. But according to one leading journalist in Middle Eastern affairs, they were all either misreported or outright false.

In a hard-hitting essay published today in the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn says coverage in the West reached a ‘nadir’ during the chaos, as newspapers and TV stations relied heavily on dubious sources and omitted important information. ‘In Syria fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the first world war,’ he writes.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Reporting from Syria is very dangerous, so journalists rely heavily on local — and thus partisan — sources. And sensational stories seemed more plausible amid the real atrocities in Aleppo.

But misinformation is a growing concern outside warzones too. Propaganda can spread quickly thanks to social media and smartphones. Media outlets are under financial pressure, encouraging them to run lurid stories on flimsy evidence and cater to audiences’ prejudices. And there is an emerging trend for ‘fake news’: deliberately created misinformation.

In yesterday’s Times, columnist Daniel Finkelstein called for education to tackle this. Children should be taught to understand and interpret things they see online ‘from an early age’. They must learn to ‘distinguish between fact and fiction’ and appreciate ‘their own cognitive weaknesses’.

Finkelstein says the case for action is ‘urgent’. Fake news has already been linked to a nuclear attack warning and a man opening fire in an American pizza restaurant. Many people believe in conspiracy theories, especially if they support their political views. And developing technology could make this worse.

So should we train people to tackle misinformation?

Knowledge is power

Great idea, say supporters. The problem could have scary implications: people will respond defensively to non-existent threats and fail to act on real ones. People of all political persuasions should support critical thinking and a respect for objective truth. The marketplace of free expression only works if we can differentiate between fact and fiction.

Be careful, warn others. Education cannot change the natural human urge to confirm our own worldview and preconceptions. Many people now define ‘fake news’ far too broadly. And if we empower people to tell us how to think, they will tell us what to think: subjective opinions will be presented as objective truths. This may make things worse.

You Decide

  1. Are you confident that you could tell a fake news story from a true one?
  2. Is education the best way to tackle misinformation?

Activities

  1. In pairs, write a 300-word fake news story, trying to make it as convincing as possible. Read it to your class and discuss: How convincing is it? How might you tell it is fake? Does it matter?
  2. Find a major story in this week’s news which interests you. Write a memo deconstructing the following: How might journalists discover this story? How would they know it was true? How true do you think it is?

Some People Say...

“It is patronising to teach people the difference between fact and fiction.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t read fake news — I only read The Day. Should I worry?
Good for you, but even we are not perfect. And you probably consume news in many more ways than you realise. If your friends tell you a story, for example, that is a form of news; if you see something shared online, so is that. New technology means your generation consumes its news very differently to those who came before you — which means you face unique challenges in digesting information.
Can understanding the news — and fake news — make me a better person?
Yes. If you can train yourself to think critically, you will be better able to question things you are told and always consider that there may be another point of view. This will help you be successful in life, and also make you a more balanced and empathetic person.

Word Watch

One-sided
Cockburn says the siege was presented simplistically as ‘a battle between good and evil’ — with the Assad government and its Russian allies as the villains. His view is disputed.
Dangerous
This was graphically shown when American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were captured and beheaded by Islamic State in Syria in 2014.
Warning
A made-up quote from Israel’s defence minister, disseminated online, suggested Israel was considering a nuclear strike on Pakistan. Pakistan’s defence minister responded on Twitter: ‘Israel forgets Pakistan is a nuclear state too’.
Pizza
Stories online suggested Hillary Clinton and her senior aides were running a child abuse ring from the restaurant. In December, a man travelled hundreds of miles across America to hold the restaurant up at gunpoint.
Believe
For example, 52% of Donald Trump’s voters — and 11% of Hillary Clinton’s — believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, according to a YouGov poll in December. Trump promoted the rumour years ago, to discredit Obama’s right to serve as president and suggest a government cover-up.