What is Fake News? Is Debate Worth the Effort?

Separating truths from falsehoods is a shared moral responsibility.

Posted Feb 19, 2019

lightsource/Deposit Photos
Source: lightsource/Deposit Photos

Fake news has become today’s political phrase du jour.

According to researchers at Syracuse University and Arizona State University who study this phenomenon, the explosive growth of fake news is “eroding democracy, justice, and public trust” (Zhou, et al. 2019).

The term, a favorite of President Donald Trump, is becoming so popular that often when a person does not agree with or refuses to debate someone else’s claims, fake news is alleged. End of discussion.

Not surprisingly, the term is popping up in classrooms and playgrounds, as children mimic their parents or the politicians they see on television. This is alarming to educators whose goal is to teach children to critically think about the world and weigh evidence before drawing conclusions.  

Multidisciplinary experts in fields like psychology, ethics, information science, economics, philosophy, and political science have begun studying the modern-day concept of fake news, its challenges, and detection strategies. Making a claim of and spreading fake news is much more than a sly or effective political strategy. Experts suggest the behavior has real, long-term consequences to ethical debate and dialogue, including detrimental effects on democracy and world economies.

Because fake news is considered so detrimental to society, researchers are busy studying ways to detect misleading information and stop its spread. Their work is highly complex and involves computerized classifiers and algorithms able to search vast networks of information. Researchers who study how machines can learn to detect fake news have not reached consensus on how best to separate truths from falsehoods, but many methods are currently being investigated (Durier da Silva, et al. 2019).

In the meantime, millions of people frequently and unintentionally participate in fake news activities. Are you one of them?

Fake News Defined

In a recent journal article, John Buschman, Dean of University Libraries at Seton Hall University provided a clear definition of fake news. According to Bushman, fake news is:

  • Information, some true and some false, that is meant to be misleading.
  • Used to mask a situation or distort data in order to deceive or manipulate.
  • Vague or ambiguous, or not entirely accurate.
  • Information that appeals to prejudices and emotions like fear, anger, and frustration.
  • An attempt to discredit reality.

Buschman says fake news is not a new phenomenon. He cites examples of fake news “going back as far as the fifteenth century, and frequently arising and re-arising in the wake of a technological innovation: the printing press, postal systems, mass newspapers, film, radio, television, and now software and the web.”

Of course, fake news methods have differed throughout history. People used forged letters, pamphlets that alleged royal sexual improprieties, made up newspaper illustrations, and more. Today, Buschman sees a ripe environment for fake news in the United States because of its political and economic polarization. Politicians in both parties look for ways to denigrate their opponents and craft news stories in ways that align with public attitudes that support their respective positions.

Pope Francis was so concerned about fake news that he discussed it at great length in his 2018 message on World Communications Day. “The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation,” he said, “are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom.”

Fake News Demands Better Information Literacy

“Democracy does not require a space cleared of distorting claims,” says Buschman, “but spaces suited to grappling with them.”

If democracy is to be fostered in today’s homes and schools, safe spaces must exist where adults and children can discuss ethical and moral issues, voice their opinions, and challenge misleading data.

Pope Francis calls for reflection and action. He said that educating “for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations.”

In a recent Scientific American article, David Pogue suggested skepticism is the ultimate weapon of fake news. Galileo was a skeptic—so was Steve Jobs! And yes, skepticism can be taught, even to children!

Pogue claims the fake news problem isn’t a technological one—it’s a philosophical one. Pope Francis would agree.

If the solution to fake news is philosophical, it suggests a shift in the fundamental ways adults and children approach problem-solving, particularly toward issues that involve emotions, ethics, morality, values, and the meaning of life—the very issues at the heart of most political debates. Examining how people digest information, reflect on their emotions, and draw conclusions is an appropriate starting point.  

Recognizing and Responding to Fake News

The biggest question many people ask is “How do I recognize fake news?” The answer is simple: Many times, one can’t. That’s why a deeper dive into the news is required. 

A deeper dive requires families and friends to help each other. It requires educators to teach the principles and practices of ethical debate to students. It requires parents to help children learn fair and effective ways to argue. Several ways to do this include:

  • Try to change each other’s minds by presenting different points of view.
  • Put yourself in other people’s shoes. How might they think and feel differently?
  • Look below the surface to discover weak spots in news stories.
  • Examine the moral implications behind political issues.
  • Be a skeptic. Examine the evidence.
  • Play devil’s advocate. Take a position you don’t agree with, just for the sake of argument.

As adults and children wander through this messy but often exhilarating process, they discover and experience what it means to be a philosopher—to tackle ethical and moral dilemmas that have challenged humans from the beginning of time. 

According to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex, Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, “the joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun” of the philosophical process of argument is empowering. 

Goldstein summarizes the major elements of the debate process: 

  1. An argument is made that some may dismiss as crazy.
  2. The debate becomes emotional because, she says, “You have to draw empathy into it.”
  3. Everyone starts discussing the argument.
  4. The idea is criticized and torn apart.

What makes philosophy work is the argument itself, according to Goldstein. The power to adapt and change happens through the debate process.

The risk of fake news to modern society and democracy is that it creates and maintains polarizing sides that never explore better solutions, compromise, or embrace change. Through the simple words, “That’s fake news,” there are many unspoken messages, including:

“I’m right.”

“I’m powerful.”

“I don’t care what you think.”

“It’s not worth debating.”  

On the contrary, thousands of years of philosophy show that debate is always worth the time and effort. Debate is how societies solve problems and evolve as human beings.

If history is correct, fake news will have its moment in the spotlight. But because humans are designed to care about truth, morality, and meaning, healthy debate will eventually prevail over misinformation and deception.

References

Buschman, J. (2019)  Good news, bad news, and fake news: Going beyond political literacy to democracy and librariesJournal of Documentation, Vol. 75 Issue: 1, pp.213-228.

Durier da Silva, C., Vieira, F., Garcia, R., & Cristina, A. (2019). Can machines learn to detect fake news? A survey focused on social media. Paper presented at the 52nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Maui, Hawaii.

Pogue, D. (2017). How to stamp out fake news. Scientific American 316, 2 (2017), 24–24

Zhou, X., Zafarani, R., Shu, K., & Liu, H. (2019). Fake news: Fundamental theories, detection strategies and challenges. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Twelfth ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining, Melbourne VIC, Australia.