This post includes content to support my recent teacher professional learning workshop, which I gave as a part of the St Rita’s Remarkable Women conference.
You’ve seen the words bandied around in the media: fake news, post-truth, alternative facts…what do they actually mean, and how do we help students (and ourselves) to develop strategies to be active and informed participants within information environments where nothing can be taken at face value?
The second part of this post’s title is the simple part of the equation; the truth about school libraries in a post-truth society is that we need them more than ever! Having a resource centre and qualified staff who are specifically trained in traditional literacy and information literacy development, and who have the capacity to support students, teachers and the school community to negotiate complex information landscapes is essential. Read the evidence for this statement here, here and here – it’s just a small selection.
The first part of the title is more challenging – for all of us. Reading between the lines to divine what exactly is high quality, balanced and credible information, and what may in fact be misinformation or disinformation takes an understanding of a complex ecosystem and the many strategies content producers use to meet their varying agendas.
So this post will explore what many of the terms used in this area actually mean, as well as offering a range of strategies and resources to support the development of information and critical literacy skills; something we all need!
What does ‘post-truth’ mean?
We live in a post-truth society. It’s a statement we often hear, but what does it actually mean?
Post-truth is interpreted in several different ways, but one useful definition is:
Post-truth: the “circuitous slippage between facts or alt-facts, knowledge, opinion, belief, and truth.” (Biesecker, B. 2018 p.329)
What this means is that there are no longer clear cut differences in the way that facts, knowledge, opinions, belief and truth are understood and presented. Truth is relative, and not necessarily based in fact. If it feels true, or if it influences public opinion, it is considered to be truth, whether or not it can be scientifically or objectively proven. Living in a post-truth environment means that the individual must evaluate information before they decide to trust it. This continual evaluation requires skills and strategies that previously we may not have needed that often.
Do you remember a time when you believed almost everything you read in the newspaper, or heard on the news? When there were particular information sources you trusted for reliable and unbiased reportage? Of course there were always those publications whose headlines you took with a grain of salt; the tabloids you knew to be sensationalist or just plain false; but this was considered public and common knowledge. Today, due to a wide range of factors, this is no longer the case.
It is not only what we read that we must evaluate. Today, images and video are just as easily manipulated as text. While we are probably aware of magazines air-brushing models and celebrities to improve their appearance, technology developments are placing this capability into everyone’s hands.
As adults, we may find these rapid technological overwhelming and frightening. Sure, we have great critical literacy skills, but there is no doubt that it is becoming more challenging to identify information based in fact. If we are finding it difficult, how are our students doing?
Not that well. A much-cited Stanford report investigating young people’s capacity to evaluate information online was summed up with this statement:
Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. (Wineburg, McGrew, Breakstone and Ortega, 2016 p.4)
This research was quite comprehensive (although limited to participants in the United States). They engaged with 7804 students, from middle school, high school and college across 12 states in the US, coming from a variety of socio-economic levels. In a concerning outcome, more than 80% of the middle school students assessed believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words sponsored content, was a real news story.
Education is key.
Let’s start with a post-truth vocabulary.
The term ‘fake news’ is often also heard in discussions concerning post-truth. ‘Fake’ is a catch-all, but it doesn’t describe the complexity of the different types of mis-information and dis-information – we need to understand the whole information eco-system, and understand the different types of content being created and shared, and so do our students.
The term fake news is actually misleading and often inaccurate. It is used to describe both misinformation and disinformation; two quite different things.
Misinformation is information that is false, but the person who is disseminating it believes that it is true. Disinformation is information that is false, and the person who is disseminating it knows it is false. It is a deliberate, intentional lie, and points to people being actively disinformed by malicious actors. (Wardle and Derakhshan, 2018, p.44)
There are different types of mis- and dis-information, and understanding these can allow information users to make more informed assessments of the credibility and quality of what they are reading or viewing. Mal-information, information based on reality but shared in a way as to maliciously cause harm is the focus of a post for another time.
Exploring information disorder: Types of mis- and dis- information
There are seven common types of mis- and dis-information. These are satire or parody, imposter content, misleading content, fabricated content, false connection, manipulated content and false context. An eighth category, micro-targeted messaging, is not always included; here, the information may not be mis- or dis-information in itself, but its style of presentation can lead people to make assumptions not based on fact.
So…what do we understand about these types of information, and what do they look like?
Satire or Parody:
Many people,including myself, enjoy a good satire. There’s nothing wrong with cleverly presenting a ‘take’ on a story or event that pokes fun or highlights the ridiculous. However, a recent Australian study found that almost half of 18 – 21 year olds (47%) use social media as their main source of news, and about one-third of 22 – 37 year olds (33%) do. When satirical reports are presented in our social network feeds, alongside other more factual news, it may be more difficult to identify the satire. Although there may be no harm intended, when learning about critical evaluation of information the presence of very convincing satirical content producers must be highlighted.
— The Chaser (@chaser) July 11, 2019
We live busy lives, and scrolling through our social media feeds or emails, it can be so easy to click on a link that looks correct. Imposter websites are often created to look like the real thing, and have urls which are so close to the actual address; often changing just one letter, or adding in an extra section in a long and complex link. E.g. www.paypa1.com or www.te1stra.com.au. How convincing does www.onlineinternetbank.eg.com.au look to you? At a quick glance, you may not even see the eg hidden in the address, which redirects you to a completely different (and yet visually very similar) site. Check this page, originally available on www.my.washingtonpost.com – if you saw that link in your newsfeed and clicked to see this, would it take you a minute or two to realise you weren’t at the actual site?
It’s how you say it. Accurate information may be framed, presented or interpreted in ways that encourage a certain perspective or misleading conclusion to be drawn.
Some of the most common misleading content can be found in news reporting of medical or health research. Here, the actual results may be presented out of context, overstated or improperly interpreted, leading readers to conclude something completely different to the findings.
A non-profit organisation of scientists and researchers, Science Feedback, presented findings earlier this year which identified that of the ten most popular articles shared in 2018 on social media (measured by engagements with the article), just three could be considered to have high credibility. Four of the articles had medium credibility – meaning they did not include major inaccuracies, were potentially misleading, having other issues that impacted credibility, such as lack of detail and context, overstatement of the significance of research findings, and misinterpretation of research findings. Three were found to have a very low credibility rating – meaning that these articles contained major inaccuracies. Two of these were published in websites of dubious origin, while one was published by The Guardian, drawn from a book, not written by a journalist).
Other examples of misleading content are often photographs which have been cropped or taken from such an angle that they present something quite different from the actual.
This type of dis-information is fairly straight forward to understand; however its impact can be concerning, particularly when one considers just how quickly it can be spread. To highlight this issue, a professor at New York University, and Time columnist, Ian Bremmer, purposefully generated a quote, attributed it to Donald Trump, and shared it to Twitter, possibly to highlight just how dangerous it can be when false information goes viral.
This is not a real Trump quote; what he and Sarah Sanders said on this is bad enough as is. If you’re basing your views of reality based on Ian Bremmer’s tweets in 2019, please reconsider. pic.twitter.com/izVoCXcsly
— Ankit Panda (@nktpnd) May 26, 2019
False connection is when the headlines, images or captions don’t support the content. Clickbait is one of the most common examples of false connection.
We might think that clickbait only happens on sites like Buzzfeed or Bored Panda – but subtle use of false connection is a lot more common than you might think, and once you start looking for it, you might see it far more frequently. For example: This article from the New York Times has the headline:
Accompanying this is a photo of a person cuddling a white duck. You could be forgiven for thinking that a emotional support animals represent a veritable zoo from this headline, and you might expect to read about a wild array of animals offering their support services. However, upon reading the article, it quickly becomes apparent that although there are emotional support squirrels, ducks and even an alligator, the ‘vast majority are dogs’. While it may be that the number of emotional support animals is causing issues or concerns, if the article featured a person with a support dog, far less interest may have been generated. Readers have made a false connection between the novelty of unusual support animals and the actual concerns raised in the article.
It is amazing how easy it is now to manipulate visual content so that it looks…well, real. Years ago, bad photoshop work was something to laugh about, but today, as deep fake videos emerge and photo manipulation becomes more convincing than reality, we truly cannot believe what we see. It is no longer a case of simply using our eyes to detect errors that betray the fact that an image has been changed. Today other strategies such as reverse image searches are needed to verify the accuracy of visual content. Check this tweet out, for an innocent example: a video that appears to show a real themepark ride (tip: it’s not real). It had 421 000 likes; how many of these people thought it was real?
WHO even thinks about creating something like this?!?!!???? pic.twitter.com/oXByLOhW54
— dweena (@itsnotdweena) June 13, 2019
False context describes information that is genuine, but shared with false contextual information; leading readers or viewers to draw incorrect conclusions.
A recent example of this was a series of posts that depicted Hyde Park, left in a terrible state with rubbish strewn everywhere, supposedly after, ironically, an event run by environmental activists, Extinction Rebellion. What actually happened was that while the environmentalists were running an event at nearby Marble Arch, a group celebrating a completely separate event, 420, were at Hyde Park, creating the mess that was photographed. A poorly written Facebook post was misinterpreted, leading to the viral tweet which conflated the environmentalist rally and the mess left behind by the party goers. In fact, the Extinction Rebellion group actually cleaned up the mess…and did not create it!
This is from a totally separate event that took place in Hyde park. #ExtinctionRebellion activists went to help tidy up anyway because it grossed us out as much as it does you.
— Extinction Rebellion 🌻 (@ExtinctionR) April 22, 2019
This is not necessarily mis- or dis- information. Micro-targeted messaging is a form of advertising, where individuals are identified through fine grained data analysis and then delivered highly specific ads. The adverts may actually be of interest or contain accurate information; however, we are not always aware that only a very small group of people are actually the audience for this messaging. This may be considered particularly concerning when used by political parties – not only do politicians know exactly who they are advertising to, they also understand how their ads are performing and have the opportunity to make that messaging more effective. This powerful form of persuasion may lead individuals to believe that many people hold similar views or are concerned with similar issues, when in fact only a small percentage of the population are. This may not be a problem for some causes; however it may be a strategy used by those who are trying to radicalise or convince particular groups of people in ways that are less positive for society.
Strategies and resources to help!
Qualified teacher librarians and library staff are essential to support teachers and students navigating this constantly changing information ecosystem.
Here are five strategies which may help develop a culture of information awareness in your school or educational context; and resources to support their implementation.
1. Adapt and implement a whole school approach to information and critical literacy
To develop a shared language within the school, to allow for skill consolidation over time and to offer a range of opportunities to embed information literacy across the curriculum.
Don’t reinvent the wheel! Remix currently existing frameworks (with permission and attribution) to suit your local context and community.
2. Get the whole school community on board
Developing these skills is important for all members of the school community. As the information ecosystem constantly changes, we need to constantly update our own knowledge and awareness. Support from home is equally important to develop young people who are active and critical users of information.
Post articles in the school newsletter. Use social media to communicate a consistent and clear message, and to point people to relevant information and articles. Offer workshops and professional learning for members of the parent and teaching community.
3. Share resources and create connections
It’s a huge job! It’s easier when we work together. Creating connections and sharing resources allows us to draw upon a larger bank of resources and ideas; we are all working towards the same goal!
Engage with your Personal Learning Network to find others who are working towards similar ends, or who are leading the charge. Create curated collections of what you discover, and share them widely. Raise this issue as a possible topic or focus for professional learning, conferences, network or staff meetings.
4. Model good practice
When we talk about and make public our own information literacy experiences, we are normalising it and allowing others to realise that ‘reading between the lines’ is part of our everyday practice. It also scaffolds metalanguage; often it is difficult to talk about mis-and dis-information experiences if we haven’t heard others doing so; words like ‘bias’, ‘clickbait’ or ‘credibility’ should be part of everyone’s vocabulary!
Firstly, we need to become aware of our own biases and errors of judgement when engaging with information; we all make mistakes! Refining our own Sifting skills is important.
5. Make it visible
We can all so easily fall into our own filter bubbles and echo chambers. Having posters and other ‘advertising’ collateral available makes it easier to raise awareness and promote discussion.
Create/remix/procure posters, bookmarks, slideshows etc. There are plenty available online! Just remember to correctly attribute and use with permission! Share these physically and virtually – everywhere you can!
Biesecker, B. (2018). Guest Editor’s Introduction: Toward an Archaeogenealogy of Post-truth. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 51(4), 329–341. https://doi.org/10.5325/philrhet.51.4.0329
Fisher, C., Park, S., Lee, J., Fuller, G., Sang, Y. (2019) Digital News Report: Australia 2019. Canberra: News and Media Research Centre.
Gruia, M. & Ashby, R. (2019, May 02) Alternative facts: fake news and disinformation in a post-truth age. [Slideshare]. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/richashby/alternative-facts-fake-news-and-disinformation-in-a-posttruth-age-143212739
Wardle, C. (2017). Fake news. It’s Complicated. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/fake-news-complicated/