How Real is Fake News – Is this the voice of anti-media literacy?

8 mins read
Graphic from Disarm Disinfo.

A fairly regular TED Talk watcher and student of disinformation, I was surprised to recently stumble upon a video by Sharyl Attkisson, “How Real is Fake News?” This 10m talk was recorded in early 2018 at the Nevada TEDx event. How had I missed this one?

By 2018 we were all too familiar with what had happened in the 2016 elections. Mueller had indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which had been responsible for generating tens of millions of social media posts aimed at US audiences. Why was this many-time Emmy Award winning former CBS journalist questioning the idea of fake news?

So, I watched and listened…

She talks about cases where “fake news” led to wrongful accusations, such as the Atlanta Olympic bombing. She also mentions how the coverage on far right wing sites (InfoWars) following the Sandy Hook shooting were clearly falsified.

She goes on to say that “liberals were the first to heavily promote the use of the phrase referring to conservative disinformation and right-wing websites.” Is that true?

I was surprised to hear Attkisson say that the term “fake news” was first to be used by the nonprofit group First Draft. This is a nonprofit founded by Claire Wardle, one of the leading voices in fighting against disinformation and “fake news” in journalism. Wardle was in residence at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center where she has been working on projects such as crowdsourcing truth through creating a “Wikipedia of Trust” as a way to to combat disinformation. Sure, Wardle may have amplified the term “fake news” through her writing. But she actually discourages the use of this term, which is too vague and is prone to oversimplification.

Attkisson attributes the motives to First Draft’s partnership with Google (a funder) and at first her concerns seem to center on the curation of content. Who would be responsible for this curation of real news? Google?In many ways, they already are curating search with algorithm-driven search results. But no, that wasn’t where she was going.

Attkisson goes on to “connect the dots” to Eric Schmidt, a Google executive who was also a Hilary Clinton campaign advisor. She ties the popularization of the term “fake news” to the Clinton campaign. She describes fake news as a “propaganda campaign” and then quotes Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept saying that “those who most loudly denounce fake news are typically the ones most aggressively disseminating it.” Wait. Was she was talking about Clinton? Yes.

She goes onto talk about how the Clinton’s fake news campaign backfired with Trump’s hostile takeover of the term. And because of that everyone blames him for it.

But what’s her real concern? With the “new term that gets bandied about, media literacy.” Her concern is that groups are advocating for media literacy to be taught in public schools. The point of this talk becomes clear at the end. She is pushing the “freedom” message. I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can not teach or be taught.

This is particularly concerning because we are in a time in history where students and citizens need to learn how to be a new sort of informed consumer of information. Information has never been so easy to create and then spread through social media amplification tools. Engagement matters much more than truth on the social web. Internet 2.0 has turned the Gutenberg press on its side in terms of advances in information spread.

In a Stanford University study of middle school students, 80% of students did not distinguish between “sponsored content” and “real news.” In other words, they did not distinguish a news story from an ad. Students too easily believe what they see, and can be convinced by imagery that accompanies a story, whether or not the image has an attribution or is clearly related to the topic that it is illustrating. People in general tend to be too easily lulled into belief by websites that appear legitimate because they are well-designed. This is a new world of information out there.

Over and over, Finland is cited as the one country that has done a good job in fighting disinformation at systemic level. They do this by embedding social media literacy skills as part of the standard critical thinking curriculum. From the start of grade school on, students learn to apply critical thinking skills to what they see online. In a recent study, Finnish students far outperformed those in the US in the area of digital literacy.

My concern about Attkisson’s video is not her questioning of the term fake news. That is a healthy discussion, even if I do not agree with her conclusions. Where I do have concern is with someone of her stature advocating against social media literacy. This is potentially dangerous. Numerous studies show that our students and citizens are woefully behind in applying critical thinking to what we see online. Even our most educated are easily duped. Attkisson is a believable and attractive spokesperson for the contingent that will inevitably argue against social media literacy as part of our school curriculum. And we can bet that this group will be funded by the likes of DeVos and other education “freedom fighters”.

Post-script. I did some connecting of the dots too. Two things of note:

  1. Attkisson’s current show, “Full Measure” is sponsored by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a known right-wing media conglomerate that has been buying up local stations across the country and is known for its ties to Donald Trump. Sinclair has been known to control what local stations play with “must run” pro-Trump content.
  2. The comment section following Attkisson’s video were too uniformly favorable. I viewed this on YouTube, after all. This was one long string of eerily similar positive comments, with uniformly favorable “thumbs up” ratings. Is it possible that bloggers pushed the comment-writing on Reddit or 4-chan to help boost the video? You never know.

Originally posted on Disarm Disinfo. Re-posted with permission.


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