Several weeks ago, while on Twitter, I came across a tweet of a passage from Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal:
Never admit defeat. You win. If you don’t win claim they cheated. They rigged it. They stole it.
I knew how the ex-president employed his own advice from that book, so I was not completely surprised, but still I was very troubled. I shared the quote on my Facebook page.
Almost immediately I thought, “Hmm … did I do this too fast?” I ran a quick fact-check, saw it was debunked by Snopes, and quickly deleted my post. Whew!
Why did I make this error? I was emotionally triggered, applied my own motivated reasoning, and engaged in hasty reading. This was a strong personal reminder of the forces—external and internal—that can cause us to not only believe misinformation, but also spread it.
Our Current Information Environment
We now live in an extremely challenging news and information environment. The stakes are so high that even the U.S. democracy was placed in peril on Jan. 6. But are there certain skills, concepts, and practices librarians and educators can teach to address these challenges?
Three key forces underlie our current challenging digital media environment:
Facts, Claims, Conspiracies, and Trust
When all types of information are mixed together, students often have difficulty sorting out facts, opinions, assertions, arguments, and, ultimately, what and whom to trust. In fact, according to A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracies and the Assault on Democracy (Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, Princeton University Press, 2019), even conspiracy theories have become harder to evaluate! Today’s conspiracy theorists no longer even try to ground their claims by drawing on coincidences, unexplained events, or hidden powerful entities. Instead, they simply make a false assertion and repeat it—over and over and over.
Algorithms, Attention and Outrage
We all know, or at least I hope we all know, that what we see on our social media platforms and in our Google searches is a reflection of algorithmic determinations about which posts and headlines are most likely to appeal to us. Head lines that trigger strong emotions—anger, outrage, and fear— get our attention, clicks, and shares.
Scanning, Skimming, and Shallowness
To keep up with our seemingly endless digital news and information feeds, we often mindlessly scan, click, skim, and move on to the next item. We make instant and incomplete judgments based on clickbait headlines, drama, and sound bites.
What Can We Teach?
Where might librarians update their media literacy toolkit to address those three major challenges of our age? New media literacies can provide a fresh approach to conquering the invasion of questionable information.
To help students distinguish between facts, claims, and conspiracies by showing them how to determine the trustworthiness of source material, librarians can start with teaching probability.
In the classic text, The Modern Researcher (Jacques Barzun, and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 6th ed., Wadsworth, 2003), renowned French historian and educator Barzun (1907–2012) wrote that “the historian arrives at truth most often through probability.”
He continues: “Certainty is never possible; yet experience of life, wide reading, and close study of politics develop the power to form views that possess plausibility. One then casts up the points in evidence … and in many cases one reaches probability.”
Another approach is to teach scientific consensus. Librarians can explain that scientific evidence:
Is the collective opinion and judgment of scientists in a particular field of study—general agreement; the theory has become fact, supported by overwhelming evidence that is well-accepted.
Is not just a group of scientists with the same opinion. Nor does it mean there is no need for additional research and is the end of discussion.
The graphic on page 17 can serve as a simple but effective way to illustrate the scientific process. Explain to students that, as scientists learn more about COVID-19, they update their understanding and continue to gather more data. Thus, we are all seeing the scientific process play out in front of us every day.
Find a disputed claim in the news. Have students link to two fact-check sites (such as Snopes, FactCheck.org, or PolitiFact), deconstruct what the fact-checkers did and sources used to check the claim, and determine how probability was employed in making their judgment. (This exercise can also be used to surface a list of credible sources based on the ones relied on by the fact-checkers.) Assign another timely disputed scientific claim, asking the students to take on the role of “fact-checker” and share out results.
When it comes to understanding algorithms and how the challenges presented by attention, outrage, and skimming affect not only research but also our understanding of current events and scientific findings, librarians can teach the concepts of the psychology of belief and digital media economics awareness.
The Psychology of Belief: You may know—but probably many students do not—how certain psychological techniques can be used to persuade people to believe something that is false. One is simply repeating a false claim. Another is called “anchoring bias”: What we hear first is what we are likely to continue to believe. These phenomena are sometimes grouped under the category of the “illusion of truth,” or the “perseverance of belief.”
Digital Media Economics Awareness. Dannagal Young, associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware, advises teaching students the economics of emotional arousal and media economics. In a phone interview, she told me that if students can at least be made aware of how they are being manipulated, that can create the opportunity for more conscious and deliberative choices.
Explain to students how certain commercial and political interests are surreptitiously controlling their online behaviors, and to what ends. Have students share how this makes them feel, and discuss what personal or collective actions they could take.
Mindful News Consumption
What does mindful news consumption mean? Mainly slowing down. A lot.
It also means not making snap judgments and learning how to suspend judgment, particularly when reading about complex matters.
How can we teach students to be less reactive and instead become more thoughtful and self-aware when encountering news?
One potential behavioral modification strategy is the “nudge.” There has been a good deal of interesting research on how small but carefully executed pushes, interruptions, or other immediate feedback can create changes in behavior. (See, for instance, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Penguin Books, 2009; and Fighting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media: Experimental Evidence for a Scalable Accuracy-Nudge Intervention, Gordon Pennycook et al., Psychological Science, June 30, 2020; doi.org/10.1177/0956797620939054 .) We see this in various parts of our lives: Your car’s dashboard gauge informs you that your MPG just dropped, prompting lightening up on the gas pedal, or a digital speed sign flashes and gets you to slow down.
To continue this driving analogy, are there speed bumps that can be placed along our online news stream to nudge us to slow down? Or, as Tommy Shane, head of impact and policy at First Draft, says, how do we introduce friction? (See “The Psychology of Misinformation: How to Prevent It”; firstdraftnews.org/latest/the-psychology-of-misinformation-how-to-prevent-it.)
This strategy has in fact been deployed by social media platforms. Twitter uses its “This claim is disputed” message to flag questionable tweets. Professor Young told me that tiny prompts like these—even something like, “Is the claim in this headline accurate?”—can slow the reader down and reduce belief in the validity of the false claim.
Are there ways, though, that students, could be taught to create their own speed bumps?
Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist monk and resident teacher at the Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears (Shambhala, 2010), she shows her readers how to integrate small “pauses” in their everyday lives. Pausing, she writes, “creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being aware and present. You just stop for a few seconds, breathe deeply, and move on.”
1. To introduce this habit of mind for reading online news, have students read the day’s trending tweets while holding a small object like a pen. Ask them to monitor themselves and to tap the pen on their desk whenever they feel a strong emotion. Provide a certain phrase to ask themselves whenever they tap the pen. (Why are you feeling this way? What bothers you about this? Who may be benefitting by spreading this tweet? etc.) Have students share out what they felt.
2. One of the biggest problems of skimming and getting triggered is that the process is not conducive to understanding complexity. Assign a “hot” issue in the news that is complex and multifaceted but that is being oversimplified by the media. Create two groups. Have one group just browse headlines on the topic via social media and summarize the issue. Have the second group read the same headlines but find and read three in-depth articles. Then have the two groups share out their analysis of the issue.
Finally, there is one other capability worth considering teaching to address today’s challenging and polarized information culture: empathy.