Education chief: ‘We must expose fake news’
This weekend, as a director of the OECD warned of the harm caused to children by fake news, a professor at the London School of Economics said it might help save good journalism. Why?
Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Germany made child marriage legal. There were drugs in the tap water in Los Angeles.
All these stories were eye-catching and plausible. Official-looking websites promoted them; the relevant articles included headlines, images and quotes.
But none of them were remotely true.
They were just three examples of “fake news” — made-up stories disseminated online. This weekend, one of the world’s leading educators said schools should focus on tackling this problem.
“Distinguishing what is true from what is not is a critical skill today,” said Andreas Schleicher, the director of education at the OECD. Teaching, he added, should give children the analytical skills they need to discriminate between fact and fiction.
Similar ideas are gaining traction. This weekend, for example, psychologists in North Carolina said schools should stress the value of intellectual humility, which is linked to the ability to make accurate judgements.
Concerns about “fake news” date to at least 1939, when a British MP used the phrase to describe contemporary press coverage. But the problem has gained global attention recently; this month, a parliamentary committee in the UK launched an inquiry into its impact.
Many fake news stories were shared during the US election. They have been connected to alarming levels of belief in conspiracy theories, and even to violent incidents. Schleicher said social media had created “echo chambers”, making fake news more potent, and that fake news could even encourage people to join Islamic State.
Meanwhile public trust in traditional media outlets has been in long-term decline. But could new teaching techniques be part of a fightback?
Last week Charlie Beckett, a journalism professor at LSE, said fake news had led to a boom in fact-checking and myth-busting, and a renewed interest in developing news literacy. In his sector, he said, it was “the best thing that has happened for decades”.
He is right, say some. The press must respond by producing transparent, relevant and valuable work. We may see an end to vacuous articles which play to an audience’s prejudices. There will be renewed interest in critical, investigative journalism. And the public — especially the young — will learn to question sources and take nothing for granted.
Nonsense, say others. Fake news encourages uninformed choices and plays to people’s emotional need to have their opinions validated. If facts always appear contentious, people will believe nothing. It generates unhealthy mistrust of the public sphere — including the media. And it cannot be tamed, because social media is too difficult to regulate.
- Could you tell the difference between a fake news story and a true or accurate one?
- Will the rise of fake news be a good thing?
- In pairs, write a list of 10 questions you would ask before you read a news story, to help you work out how true it is.
- Write a convincing 500-word news story of your own, which is either fake or true. Bring it to class for your classmates to read. Can you work out which stories are fake and which are true? How?
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Q & A
- Fake news, you say? How do I know this isn’t fake news?
- Groups such as the Pew Research Centre have found that the number of people getting their information from social media has grown dramatically. New technology has made it easier to promote fake news stories. And respected journalists have investigated less reputable websites and found they were sharing many fake stories.
- But does this stuff have any impact?
- It seems so. In the USA, a poll for YouGov in December found that 52% of Donald Trump’s voters, and 11% of Hillary Clinton’s, thought President Obama was born in Kenya. In reality he was born in Hawaii. But we do not know whether this fake news changed the way people voted. It is also difficult to calculate how far poor education caused people to believe such incorrect ideas.
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — a forum with over 35 member states, including many of the world’s most developed economies.
- A study in 2015 also suggested discussions about truth, fairness and kindness boosted pupils’ maths, literacy, behaviour and confidence.
- John Morris MP asked the prime minister to punish organisations which published “demonstrably fake news” in the lead-up to the second world war.
- Last year a man held up a pizza restaurant with a gun, amid unfounded rumours that politicians in the US Democratic Party were running a child abuse ring from it.
- Echo chambers
- Areas where people only hear opinions they agree with.
- Islamic State
- Schleicher said that social media reinforces the thinking that there is only one truth and one way to live — fitting the philosophy of jihadist groups.
- Tabloid journalists belong to one of the three least trusted professions in the UK — alongside estate agents and cabinet ministers.
- The London School of Economics, one of the most famous universities in the world.