Fake news: is media literacy the answer?

Growing concerns about ‘fake news’ have led to calls for young people to be taught critical media literacy skills. Yet while media literacy would obviously be useful, it isn’t enough to address the problem. Media educators need to frame the issue more broadly, and join forces with those calling for media reform.


In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, there has been considerable debate about the problem of so-called ‘fake news’. Trump’s opponents have accused his supporters – including the Russian government – of circulating fabricated news stories in order to gain support. Yet Trump himself has frequently used the term to discredit what he claims is false information about him.

The problem is somewhat less evident here in the UK, although the Brexit campaign and the attempts to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader have raised similar issues about media bias and misrepresentation. There may have been fewer outright lies, but there have been plenty of examples of the media – and, of course, of politicians themselves – manipulating the truth.

Back in 1710, the satirist Jonathan Swift noted that ‘falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.’ ‘Fake news’ has always been with us. Yet developments in technology, and in the wider media landscape, are undoubtedly making it a more urgent problem.

The dangers of fake news are fairly self-evident. The democratic political process depends upon the circulation of reliable information. If information can no longer be trusted, citizens have little basis on which to make political decisions. As such, there is now high-level concern about fake news among governments around the world. Barack Obama has gone so far as to describe it as a threat to democracy.

In the US in particular, there has been an interesting debate about the potential of media literacy education in this respect. Some difficult issues are at stake here – about trust and credibility, about epistemology (what’s fake? what’s truth?), about the role of educators, and about public knowledge more broadly.

These are not new issues for media educators. Media Studies teaching (at least in the UK) has always addressed questions about news bias and representation – to the point where it almost seems like an old-fashioned concern. The advent of the internet raised new questions about credibility, and about the need for information literacy: yet these have also been on the agenda for educators for many years.

Nor are these issues confined to new media. They also apply to ‘old’ media, and to the behaviour of politicians themselves. Politicians have always made false claims, and indeed told blatant lies – although the success of people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson would suggest that they are increasingly able to get away with it.

Yet while these may be well-established phenomena, they are taking on a new form in the digital age. Social media has made it much easier for lies and misinformation to be circulated from person to person, bypassing the gatekeepers and regulators who controlled old media. So what is the role of media literacy education in what some are calling this ‘post-truth’ era?


What is fake news?

Most simply, fake news is news that is fabricated, and deliberately intended to mislead or deceive. As such, it’s important to distinguish it from satirical parodies of news (sites such as The Onion in the US) – although some readers may not always appreciate this distinction. Fake news typically appears on sites that masquerade as genuine news sites, although it is often picked up and re-circulated by mainstream media.

Fake news often has a political dimension: it is intended as a form of misinformation or propaganda that is designed to exert political influence. It may even constitute a form of ‘cyberwarfare’ between nations (although again, the history of the Cold War suggests that such activities are far from new).

However, in some cases, it may have a primarily economic motivation. Fake news often functions as ‘clickbait’, which will generate revenue thorough advertising and the selling of user data. Networking services – and in particular Facebook – will do most of this work for you: their entire business model depends upon it. As such, the fake news phenomenon needs to be understood in relation to the wider political economy of the internet.

These political and economic motivations may also be blurred. Although the Russian government may have been involved, much of the pro-Trump fake news generated during the 2016 election campaign apparently came from a cluster of sites run by teenagers in the Macedonian town of Veles. These entrepreneurial young people claimed that they were making easy money simply giving Trump supporters what they wanted to hear.

There are now so many examples of fake news stories – Wikipedia has an interesting list – that it is bound to become harder to identify them, or to tell fake from true. Of course, many are blatantly and obviously absurd. Perhaps my favourite example was the spoof story about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being voted the sexiest man alive. The story was posted on the US satirical site The Onion in 2012, but it was taken up by the official newspaper the China People’s Daily, which featured a 55-page photo spread on its website.


However, there are limits to such absurdity. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, the so-called ‘Pizzagate’ story made ludicrous claims that Hillary Clinton was involved in a paedophile sex trafficking ring run out of a Washington restaurant. Yet the laughter turned sour when a Trump supporter turned up at the pizza parlour firing an automatic weapon.

While there is little doubt that fake news was used extensively in support of Trump’s campaign, and is particularly driven by the political right, the charge runs across the political spectrum. Return of Kings is just one extreme right-wing site that identifies ‘fake news’ purportedly circulated by so-called liberal media. Trump’s latest claim that the US Intelligence Services have been circulating fake news about his exploits in Russian hotel rooms is a further example. It may have already happened, but in the near future we are bound to see fake news stories about fake news.


In some ways, the debate about fake news can be seen as a further deflation of the bubble of internet hype – especially the idea that networked technology would lead to a flowering of civic participation and democratic engagement. While some of us were sceptical about such claims from the outset, others – including early technology enthusiasts such as Timothy Wu and Wired magazine – have taken a little longer to get there.

While such technology might well be a great resource for progressive political activists, our research showed that it is also a valuable tool for anti-democratic forces, including the resurgent extreme right and those who peddle racism and other forms of abuse. The so-called ‘alt-right’ can also play the game of creating memes, optimizing search engines, trolling and tagging and going viral. Indeed, present evidence would suggest that they are much better at these things than those on the political left.


Technical solutions

Potentially, there are various ways of dealing with the problem of fake news. As with other problematic aspects of online content, such as pornography, some have called for a system of labeling. Sites might be encouraged – or even required – to obtain some kind of official certificate of approval from fact-checkers. ‘White lists’ of trustworthy sites might be established, or repeat offenders warned and then taken down by internet service providers.


Such responses would clearly require collaboration on the part of the technology companies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg initially denied that his company had anything to do with the spread of fake news, although he has subsequently backtracked a little. Facebook has undertaken to block advertising by self-evidently fraudulent sites, and Google has claimed it will do this via its Adsense service. Facebook has also partnered with fact-checking websites on an initiative that will tag articles whose veracity is ‘disputed’.

However, any further steps along these lines seem unlikely. Such actions would imply that these companies are not merely technology companies, but media companies – and this is something they are very keen to avoid. Requiring them to take responsibility for content would completely undermine their basic economic model, which is premised on the claim that they are simply technological services that users are free to use in any way they choose.


Media literacy

With governments unlikely or unwilling to challenge this free-market argument, commentators often look to media literacy education as some kind of alternative solution. For example, when a recent study by researchers at Stanford University found that most young people were unable to distinguish between real and fake news, there were calls for them to be taught ‘internet literacy’. (It’s not clear why this argument applied only to young people, but we can let that pass…). The influential website Vice, for example, ran the headline: ‘we need to teach kids how to be skeptical of the internet’.

Most media literacy educators are likely to respond to this with a degree of weariness. Duh! Isn’t that what we’ve been trying to do for decades – despite fact that we have been consistently marginalized within the mainstream curriculum?

Yet there is a broader problem here. Media literacy is often invoked in a spirit of ‘solutionism’. When media regulation seems impossible, media literacy is often seen as the acceptable answer – and indeed a magical panacea – for all media-related social and psychological ills. Are you worried about violence, sexualisation, obesity, drugs, consumerism? Media literacy is the answer! Let the teachers deal with it!

This argument clearly frames media literacy as a protectionist enterprise, a kind of prophylactic. It oversimplifies the problems it purports to address, overstates the influence of media on young people, and underestimates the complexity of media education. Thus, violence in society is not simply caused by media violence, and it will not be reduced by simply telling kids that movies are teaching them the wrong lessons – or indeed by stopping them watching TV, as some propose.

Similar arguments apply to fake news. Fake news is a symptom of much broader tendencies in the worlds of politics and media. People (and not just children) may be inclined to believe it for quite complex reasons. And we can’t stop them believing it just by encouraging them to check the facts, or think rationally about the issues.

Of course, this is not to say we shouldn’t try. The US media educator Frank Baker has assiduously gathered a set of checklists and recommendations for educators trying to tackle fake news in the classroom. Students are encouraged to cross-check online information, to verify and compare sources, to analyse the design and construction of sites, to check the provenance of the material, and to think about the producers’ motivations. There are several lesson plans and videos on Frank’s site, many of them undoubtedly useful.

fake-newsadviceHowever, there has also been some debate about the role of media literacy here. Microsoft’s Danah Boyd has claimed that, far from being any kind of solution, media literacy might actually be the cause of the fake news problem – a strange and muddled argument that has understandably exasperated practitioners.

However, there have been some other contributions that point to the need for a broader view. They argue that fake news is merely a manifestation of much broader problems, that apply to ‘real’ news as well; and that while media literacy is obviously important to pursue, it might not prove to be a sufficient solution. So what are the problems here?


Problems with media literacy

Firstly, there are some significant pedagogical problems in how we might deal with fake news in the classroom. Assessing the reliability and credibility of sources is arguably much more difficult with online media than used to be the case with ‘old’ media, although this is something that experienced media educators can probably handle. However, in this case, judging truth and falsehood must depend to some extent on knowing about content as well as form – understanding the topics at hand, rather than just how they are presented. This is particularly hard in a context where most of one’s students are unlikely to be interested in political or social issues, let alone knowledgeable about them (although again, this applies to adults just as much as young people).

Even if these critical skills can be cultivated, there is a further question about how far they will actually be applied outside the classroom. How many people are willing to routinely evaluate the reliability of online sources, or to cross-check information – especially in an age when we have become used to instant access to information? Personally, I am sorry to say that I rarely do this, and I doubt that I could persuade an average sixteen-year-old student to do so either.

Beyond this, there is the problem of epistemology. You don’t have to be a complete relativist to acknowledge that a given ‘fact’ can be interpreted in many different ways by different people in different contexts. There are some absolute truths and some absolute falsehoods, but between them lies a very large grey area.

And interpretation is a complicated business. As Maha Bali has pointed out, ‘real’ news often requires a great deal of critical and emotional energy to deal with. As such, discerning true from false – or, rather, identifying and coming to terms with the elements of truth and falsehood in most representations of the world – may only be the beginning of a much more complex educational journey.

There’s a danger here of assuming that we are dealing with a rational process – or at least one that can, by some pedagogical means, be made rational. But from an educational perspective, we surely have to begin with the question of why people might believe apparently ‘fake’ news in the first place. By no means all media use is rational. Where we decide to place our trust is as much to do with fantasy, emotion and desire, as with rational calculation. All of us are inclined to believe what we want to believe.

This is arguably much more complex at time when we can exercise much greater control over the media and sources to which we are exposed. In terms of digital media, this has led to growing concerns about the ‘filter bubble’, or the ‘echo chamber effect’. We can easily filter out things we dislike or do not agree with, and thereby remain in a comfortable world where everything appears to confirm our existing world-view. Research suggests that people positively want to remain in such filter bubbles – and, more generally, that news that plays to already-established positions or prejudices is much more inclined to be ‘liked’ (and hence to generate more income for social media companies). While this is partly a consequence of the proliferation and fragmentation of media, it is also a symptom of growing political polarization, and of diminishing trust in authority much more broadly.

False beliefs may derive from exposure to fake news, or be simply reconfirmed by it. But either way, it seems unlikely that they will be easily dispelled by a good dose of facts, or the force of rational argument. The history of media education certainly tells us this. Racism, for example, is unlikely to be dispelled by appeals to rationality, or by critically analyzing racism in the media. Indeed, it often proves extremely resistant to such teacherly strategies.

There is a further danger here, which media literacy education can easily play into. A critical perspective can easily slide into a generalized, superficial cynicism – a blanket distrust of everything and everyone, and especially of the media. This might appear nihilistic, but it is also quite a comforting position to adopt; and it is a stance that unites conspiracy theorists of all political persuasions.

Ultimately, media literacy is an individualistic solution. Policy makers accept, however regretfully, that the media are not doing a good job in informing citizens and promoting democracy, and that regulating them is impossible. And so they pass responsibility down to the individual consumer: it’s their problem to sort it out.

I have argued elsewhere that this approach informs many governmental endorsements of media literacy, and the work of regulatory bodies: it is key to understanding the history of media literacy policy in the UK, for example. While it appears to be about empowering consumers, it effectively absolves governments of responsibility for addressing problems that arise in a media landscape that is increasingly driven by the imperatives of the free market.

I am not arguing that media literacy is not the answer – or at least an answer – but simply that it is not enough on its own. Media literacy needs to be linked to wider campaigns for media reform. This is partly about professional practices. As Charlie Beckett has argued, there is now a growing need for professional journalists to be more sceptical, and more explicit, in their use of evidence, and more transparent themselves. Especially in the era of President Trump, mainstream journalism has a much greater responsibility to perform its traditional role of ‘speaking truth to power’.

However, there is a broader challenge posed by the ‘non-professional’ journalism of social media. As Evgeny Morozov argues, fake news ultimately exists because of the business model of what he calls ‘digital capitalism’: it exists because it’s profitable. If we want to challenge fake news, we have to challenge the enormous power of digital advertising and the global companies that thrive on it.

Like Paul Mason, Morozov calls for better government regulation, and ultimately for the break-up of the big data companies. This might seem an unlikely outcome, perhaps. But surely understanding this bigger picture is what critical media literacy education should be all about…



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