Darrell Berkheimer: How to combat ‘fake news’
Many folks are talking about “fake news” as if it somehow is a new phenomenon. But we have been dealing with misleading information, hoaxes and outright lies for centuries.
What is new is the proliferation of sources, the tremendous volumes of false information coming from those sources and the attention the issue has received because of statements by President Donald Trump and members of his administration. As a result, various sources are issuing checklists on how to determine what is false and what is accurate.
Technology has provided these new avenues for deceit and manipulation — through electronics that offer social media instantaneous sending and receiving, plus the creation of false or altered photos.
Since the middle of the last century, more and more of our misleading and false information — often false as a result of innuendo and insinuation — has been disseminated through various forms of advertising and marketing. Just think about how much of it panders to macho or feminine appearance and sexual desires, and how much of it makes exaggerated claims that we know can’t be true.
We have become accustomed to such manipulation attempts and we have developed a certain amount of skepticism. In some instances we recognize the false and exaggerated claims for what they are, and yet we still sometimes allow ourselves to be manipulated by the message. In recent decades, one such form of misleading information has been referred to as “spin” by consultants and others who spread slanted and incomplete information to manipulate opinions.
But the growth in volume of outright lies, deliberately disseminated to manipulate large groups of people, has become our biggest information problem today.
Unfortunately, some people will repeat fake news and cite the source even when they doubt its truthfulness. Some people will do that because they wish it were true, or because they like to gossip, or they simply want to disparage the person or organization involved.
These conclusions were reported in a comprehensive article titled “Why We Lie” in the June edition of National Geographic. The article cited researchers who are reporting that we’re prone to believe some lies even when evidence clearly shows they’re false.
The article states: “These insights suggest that our proclivity for deceiving others, and our vulnerability to being deceived, are especially consequential in the age of social media. Our ability as a society to separate truth from lies is under unprecedented threat.”
The same article also reports research has revealed we are especially prone to accepting lies that affirm our views. And it’s a willingness to not only accept fake news, but even to repeat it.
In addition, some studies show that even after providing evidence that proves the lies to be false, citing that evidence may instead strengthen beliefs in the falsehoods. One researcher observed many people apparently choose to think information that agrees with their thoughts is true.
The research revealed that repeated efforts to debunk fake reports actually may have the reverse effect of making it more familiar and reinforcing it.
So destroying the effects of fake news is not just a simple matter of disseminating the facts. It’s a problem that has become as great or greater than battling “the Big Lie” — a lie that is repeated so often to the point that many people believe it is true.
Thus, the big question is: How can we combat fake news?
The answer — like so many other answers — is multi-faceted. It includes the need to foster skepticism and curiosity, to promote a desire to know the truth, the real deal or the latest up-to-date conclusion. Unfortunately, exact answers aren’t always available.
Combatting fake news requires developing the skills of critical thinking and research, the analyzing of issues by examining opposing views and coming to sensible or reasonable conclusions.
That means the education of our children — in grade schools as well as in the home — needs to emphasize critical-thinking skills such as how to interpret and analyze issues, events and data. Unfortunately, too many students aren’t getting that type of training until they take college-level classes.
That’s because the emphasis in the hierarchy of our current grade school system appears to be shifting more toward teaching by memorization — by rote — because of the increased emphasis on standardized testing.
Instead, we should be emphasizing the advice of Albert Einstein, who said: “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
And we can’t automatically point a finger at teachers. Too often they are being forced to teach so that students can pass the standardized tests, which takes time away from their ability to teach critical thinking.
In recent times, we seem to have more and more people who simply lack the desire to analyze situations and the facts. It appears many people want to be spoon-fed easy answers and conclusions that agree with their opinions as they turn to broadcast and social media that mirror their views.
Helen Keller had an appropriate comment for that situation. She said: “People don’t like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.”
Isn’t that the real problem with our fake news?
Isn’t it the desire of too many people to advocate what they want to believe, rather than take the time to analyze situations and face conclusions they don’t like?
Doesn’t the guilt fall on the failure in our obligation to become adequately informed before repeating opinions as truth?
And are too many of us ignoring our obligation to become informed before voting?
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a biweekly column published Saturdays by The Union. Contact him at email@example.com.
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