What To Do About “Fake News”

In a recent post, I expressed worry that the objective findings of the Mueller investigation won’t matter because right-wing media won’t report them, and instead create their own false narratives. This leads Trump’s followers to actually believe these lies—its Clinton who is connected to the Russians, Mueller is a Democrat, etc.—which then puts pressure on Republicans to act based on these lies, and the politicians, fearing primary challenges, then either pretend to believe the lies in order to get re-elected, or are themselves so crazy that they actually believe the lies. So what do we do?

There are only 2 basic strategies I can think of: 1) educating the populace so they don’t believe the lies;  or 2) keeping the lies and misinformation from the people in the first place. Thirty years of university teaching, including at some prestigious universities, convinces me that the first strategy is problematic. Teach critical thinking, logic, and encourage students to take courses in the mathematical and natural sciences by all means, but reptilian brains full of cognitive biases leftover from our evolution naturally rebel. We are just so programmed to fall for bullshit. Better to mandate the teaching of critical thinking to young students, especially as a tonic to the religious indoctrination which typically undermines critically thinking for a lifetime.

The second strategy was once relatively successful in the USA when media was governed by the fairness doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was—in the Commission’s view—honest, equitable, and balanced. The FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 and removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register in August 2011. This set the stage for the rise of Fox News and right-wing talk radio that has coarsened political discourse and undermined truth.

Recently, Finland has made news for its relatively successful effort in combatting fake news. They have combined the approaches above, emphasizing both government action and the teaching of critical thinking in the excellent schools. Apparently, they have been more successful than anyone else so far.

4 thoughts on “What To Do About “Fake News”

  1. Does the reinstatement of an old rule for television really have a chance to correct the slew of issues brought up? Or would a re-invented clone of it work? Fox is the television villain for the Left, but what does the Fairness Doctrine do for Infowars or Breitbart or any of the online venues? What about the leftist versions of the same propaganda models?

    Finland is held up as the standard here, but after reviewing some of the material presented as to why Finland is more resilient to epistemological pitfalls and their manipulations is “their country’s strong public education system, long history of balancing Russia, and a comprehensive government strategy allow it to deflect coordinated propaganda and disinformation.” When viewed along with “this combination of widespread critical thinking skills among the Finnish population and a coherent government response makes a strong defense against concerted outside efforts to skew reality and undermine faith in institutions.”, to me, is in direct contradiction to the “top down” governmental regulatory approach advocated in this blog-piece.

    It seems that the first step is to educate the populace. Though I do not have the same experience in education as the author, I would point out that by the time the author gets to the “populace”, they are already university level. Is it the same experience for pre-school through high school teachers? The sample size of the populace that resists this sort of education from the negative view posted here rests on the subset of adults who are already past the “society changing” age range for introduction to these critical thinking skills AND who also have the means to attend university in the first place. What about all those that do not have the means to attend university? Should they be forgotten about simply because they are not in university? Isn’t that what leads to the flourishing of these issues in the first place? As Trump has said – he loves the “uneducated” (though a lot of highly educated people also voted for him I would add).

    I would also add that, contrary to the STEM-only approach, critical thinking skills could be a subject in and of itself, started as early in the public school curriculum as possible. It could be a more philosophy-based and wide ranging exploratory approach as a curriculum for the goal of arming the general populace with an “epistemological vaccine” of sorts. Yes, you can learn specific versions of critical thinking by knowing your maths and physics, but that is not going to engage curiousity and emotion and prime the bulk of “populace” for the application of logic and critical thought to matters that are not so clear cut as photons, flow rates, calculus, and thermodynamics.

    Academia tends to have those who remain invisible to it – all the “support population” without which academia does not exist – those who install the lights, lay the steel and concrete, take out the trash, and serve our food. All the kids taught in university most likely won’t be in these positions, yet will depend on them for their comfortable, educated lives. How did the person who works in the university cafeteria vote and why? Do we know? Do we care to know?

    I say let’s arm ALL the kids with the vaccine, not just those that can attend university, and give it to them as early as possible (so that it does not depend on the university alone) and let it evolve with them as they grow into this world. Maybe then places like the US will be able to say “this combination of widespread critical thinking skills among the…population” shuts down the self-interested social manipulators which divide and take advantage of them.

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree that critical thinking should be taught to children, I think it should be required. I also think that anything we can do to make other media truthful—radio, the internet, etc. would be a good ida.

  3. I teach high school students, so I get them a little earlier than you do. I am lucky to have the opportunity to teach them proofs in Geometry, and when I am asked why we need to do proofs as high school students invariably complain about, I always explain so that they won’t end up electing a president based off of fake news. I 100% know where you are coming from that it is difficult to teach these critical thinking skills.

    My concern with your second option is that what is the tagline for Fox news? Who decides what is “fair and balanced” or “honest, equitable, and balanced”? It is a slippery slope so our efforts are better placed on figuring out how to teach critical thinking skills.

  4. To this day I remember my high school geometry class from almost 50 years ago. How I loved doing proofs. A couple of alternate interior angles being equal and you were on your way. And those definitions: “a line is breadthless length” “a point is that which has no part” How I loved it. Thanks for reminding me of it and making the connection with critical thinking. As Plato said above his academy, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter” JGM

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