If the old adage is that truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, the new problem is that many people no longer can tell the difference between the two.
A December 2016 Pew Research survey demonstrated the magnitude of that problem, revealing that 64% of respondents believed fake news had caused “a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current events.” More recently, on Oct. 16, a study of attitudes young people harbor about news and the remarkably varied ways in which they consume it found that 45% of the 6,000 students surveyed expressed difficulty distinguishing between fake news and actual journalism. Merely 14% of those surveyed for the report, published by Project Information Literacy and commissioned by the Knight Foundation, said they felt “very confident” in their ability to discern fact from fiction.
Compounding that confusion is a growing distrust of media such studies also reveal. John Wihbey, a Northeastern professor who helped produce the Project Information Literacy study, made the observation that, “The rather contentious and poisonous public discourse around ‘fake news’ has substantially put young news consumers on guard about almost everything they see … We don’t want to raise a generation not to believe in the power of well-reported, well-researched, well-sourced news.”
Things like this bumper sticker spotted recently by WNYC senior editor Andrea Bernstein in Park Slope, Brooklyn–a place this Brooklyn-raised writer knew well in his youth as one of the most liberal enclaves I ever encountered–illustrates the depth of that “contentious and poisonous discourse”:
While a newer Pew Research study released just this week yielded what some might consider the hopeful headline, “Younger Americans are better than older Americans at telling factual news statements from opinions,” the Poynter Institute’s Daniel Funke and Alexios Mantzarlis suggested that the study “might underestimate” the public’s ability “to distinguish between fact and opinion outside the pristine parameters of a research experiment.”
If indeed the public’s inability to tell fact from fiction is as widespread as those studies by Pew and PIL suggest, recent news makes it easy to see why. In just the past several weeks, photos shared on social media that were said to depict Hurricane Michael or its associated damage in and around Panama City, Florida, were revealed to be fake. As Peter Adams documented in the Oct. 15 edition of his excellent newsletter for the News Literacy Project, The Sift, one photo actually was a manipulation depicting a hypothetical catastrophic flooding event at JFK Airport in New York, while another had been snapped in Pensacola and published months earlier.
The Oct. 1 edition of The Sift explored similar hoaxes surrounding the hearings to consider Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court. Both Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, were misidentified in photos shared on social networks that cast them in an unflattering light. One turned out to be a stock image from Getty of someone who was not Kavanaugh; the other clearly was not an image of Ford but turned out instead to be Ukranian human rights activist Lyudmyla Kozlovska.
Such hoaxes demonstrate that an age in which anyone can be a publisher is an age in which everyone needs to be an editor. Whether it’s the frenzy accompanying a monster hurricane or the heat of a political firestorm, organizations such as the News Literacy Project, the American Press Institute, Poynter, the PIL, or even Twitter feeds such as @HoaxEye are helping people appreciate the importance of slowing down, verifying claims they encounter, distinguishing between credible sources and propaganda, and employing key tactics for combating fake news such as reverse image searching. The NLP’s quiz, for example, which they recently produced in collaboration with global communications marketing firm Edelman and comedian and filmmaker Mark Malkoff, does a great job demonstrating the urgency of today’s news literacy crisis. (Think Darth Vader actually said, “Luke, I am your father!”? Wrong!)
Social media companies increasingly also are stepping up to combat fake news. On Oct. 11, with the 2018 midterm elections rapidly approaching, Facebook announced that it had purged more than 800 accounts the company said were generating fake political content while “using Facebook to mislead people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate.” Meanwhile, reporters themselves are becoming educators as they increasingly recognize that the general public’s understanding of what the practice of journalism entails may be less informed than ever before. Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times, for instance, last month gave a richly detailed interview to Slate in which he broke down meticulously how sourcing works and how many nuanced and analytical judgments reporters must make on a daily basis.
Yes, the truth may well be stranger than fiction sometimes. What would be stranger is to live in a world in which people no longer distinguish one from the other. That outcome is best prevented through news literacy education.