Technology and Society

On Not Being Able to Tell Fakes From Good Reporting

November 24, 2019

As frequently happens to me (probably the fault of never quite overcoming being an undergraduate), I came across three new research reports on the same day that seem connected.

The first came out earlier this month, but I somehow missed it. “Students’ Online Civic Reasoning: A National Portrait” should be required reading for anyone who cares about information, news, civic or digital literacy. (That should pretty much cover all of us.) The Stanford History Education Group, which has previously studied how both students and history professors struggle with evaluating information found online, has new results that suggest that, despite a host of efforts to fight “fake news,” high school students are no better prepared today to sort misinformation from reliable sources. Hardly any performed well on a series of tasks that are the kind of basic information decisions we have to make multiple times a day. Whatever we’re doing for students, it’s not working and, as the study authors point out, these kids are almost voting age.

Another study, this one from PEN America, shows local news (meaning news coverage based in places like Baltimore and Chicago, not just tiny towns) is fading fast. The invaluable Margaret Sullivan lays out the implications: want stories that uncover grift in city hall or in the halls of the rich and famously untouchable? You need local reporters. This is mostly the denouement of a long story of extractive greed. Newspapers, which were once quite profitable, began to be scooped up some years ago to create big bundles of profit. Now that we have all the information we can shake a stick at apparently for free, and advertising belongs to Google and Facebook, the financial vultures are swooping in to buy up, dismantle and pick the bones of what’s left. Yes, there are bright spots. New ventures have found alternatives to being run like a business right into the ground — but we need solutions that aren’t small, local and dependent on the kindness of philanthropists.

Nor can news (or people who care about quality news) depend on the kindness of the social media giants that soak up so much attention and the digital dollars that come with it. The Tow Center just published a study that explores how news organizations have been victimized by social media, which keeps making promises that don’t pan out. News organizations can’t escape the gravitational pull social media exerts on readers and can’t recoup the digital dollars that go to these incredibly wealthy and powerful intermediaries, so they have to go with whatever new schemes the giants cook up, but in the evocative words of one research subject quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review, “it’s like we’re wounded animals and wondering if they’re going to shoot us or try to give us just enough medical help to keep us alive so we can continue to serve them.”

These issues seem knotted together to me, in the Gordian sense. Students can’t tell what’s news and what’s misinformation because they don’t understand how to navigate our current, messy digital information environment, where it’s profitable to lie but not so much to tell the truth. Newspapers are being killed by vulture capitalists, and the advertising market that once paid for news has been taken over by a few big companies that hold all the power. We can work on helping our students figure out what makes information good, what kinds of processes and ethical considerations go into seeking truth and telling it, but as citizens we also have to think about how we can ensure quality news is there when we need it.

We need better civic literacy, but we also need better civics. We need new policy, and for that we need to break the grip of money on … well, everything.

A couple more links that don’t directly relate, but kind of do — the prison-industrial complex wants to exploit incarcerated folks by charging them to read by the minute, and the outfit that collects funds to keep internet domains organized has just sold control over .org domains to a vulture capital company and removed price caps for renewals, guaranteeing that the new “owners” of this service that is fundamental to the existence of websites can gouge .org website owners at will with virtually no outlay. These are specific problems that maybe can be reversed with enough public outrage, but … come on, people! Really?

When there’s so much going on, it’s hard to decide where exactly to apply our shears to the Gordian knot, but we need to stay alert to the big, entangled picture and whack away where we can.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.