After the November election, it was determined that the nation was in the grip of a crisis of “fake news” centered around an uncontrolled new media (consisting of blogs, social networks, and other sources that bypass traditional “real news” outlets) delivering false information that threatens to not just dupe the public, but lead us into a “post-truth” age.
It would be simple to join one of two opposing camps that accept this diagnosis, one of which includes critics of the incoming administration who fear the replacement of CNN with Twitter threatens to allow a President with limited acquaintance with the truth direct access to the population, and another that calls the entire exercise a projection by the real purveyors of “fake news” (the mainstream media allegedly in Hillary Clinton’s pocket) still choking on sour grapes.
Far be it for me to deny anyone the pleasure of partisan rage and self-righteousness. But for those seriously interested in successfully navigating an evolving information landscape, here are some straightforward steps that you can take to not just help you grasp this or that fact or issue, but also arm you to survive—even thrive—in an era of limitless data, and limitless people who want to tell you how to interpret it.
Step 1 – Question Selection: Select a news story related to an issue about which you have a strong opinion. If you’re really feeling up to the challenge, this can involve a highly charged matter, such as police incidents that led the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, or recent votes at the UN related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it’s also fair to select a less complex and emotionally fraught matter, so long as you start with strong opinions on one side or the other.
Step 2 – Research: Once the news story has been selected, follow the rules of Information Literacy to locate, evaluate, organize, and synthesize that information to the point where you feel you have collected sufficient facts to move onto argument construction (Step 3). The steps of the Information Literacy process are spelled out in detail in this chapter of Critical Voter, and your research need not be exhaustive. But it must leave you with enough facts that can be built into the premises of strong and charitable arguments that can serve as the basis of analysis.
Step 3 – Argument Construction and Analysis: Here it must be pointed out that the whole “fake news” brouhaha is built on the assumption that our decisions (electoral or otherwise) can be made based primarily on facts that can be proven either true or false. This is the thinking behind the explosion of fact-checking web sites in recent elections designed to ferret out “the truth” by confirming whether statements made by one or both political candidates were accurate.
But, as pointed out here, in any real-world context facts do not stand alone but rather serve as the building blocks for premises in a logical argument. And unless you can construct an argument containing those fact-based premises and evaluate not just the premises but the logic that links them to a conclusion, you are likely to find yourself stuck in the familiar unproductive argument that goes:
Premise 1: Someone I don’t like says X.
Premise 2: X is factually false.
Conclusion: Someone I don’t like is a liar.
Unlike fact-checking (which can be done with a few mouse clicks these days), argument construction is an art that takes practice, especially when trying to tease out what someone is arguing in order to put it into a format that can be analyzed for strengths and weaknesses. This chapter provides some examples of how to do this, and the more you practice the art of argumentation, the more it becomes second nature.
Step 4 – Reflection: While following this set of steps might lead you to change your original opinion, there is also the chance that you may end this process exactly where you began regarding your beliefs identified in Step 1. This is a perfectly reasonable finishing point, as long as the steps you’ve taken to get there provided challenges to those beliefs based on reasonable arguments constructed through honest interpretation of well-researched facts. But if the facts you unearthed and analyzed and the opposing arguments you constructed from them seem like they were made by a fraud or a simpleton, then you are probably stuck making that unproductive argument shown above and need to start again.
I suppose a six-week free course on how to create your own fake news (with a title predicting that fake news is all we can expect from the upcoming Trump administration) will be emotionally satisfying to those who have enrolled in it, not to mention those who chose to frame the course as they have. But anyone who wants to insulate themselves from not just false news but the bad arguments that supposedly false news underwrites would be better off following the steps outlined above.
Just as bad money tends to drive out good, the phenomenon of sloppy or biased news is likely to get worse as new media continues to push out the old, and as that old media evolves to reflect the mores of more rambunctious (and successful) upstarts. Which leaves we citizens/voters/critical thinkers the last line of defense when it comes to protecting ourselves against “fake news” by learning to think for ourselves.
Jonathan Haber is an educational researcher whose Degree of Freedom website describes his attempt to replicate (l)earning a BA in philosophy in one year. He is the author of MOOCS: The Essential Guide from MIT Press and Critical Voter: How to Use the Next Election to Make Yourself and Your Kids Smarter. He is currently helping to build a new graduate school of education.