No false alarm: it’s time for the truth to put its boots on
Ashraf Merchant, Education Director at Fujitsu UK and Ireland, on what education can do to tackle fake news, and how business can help
‘Fake news’ was a term that came to prominence with the election of Donald Trump but, as Mark Twain can attest, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. Back in the 19th century, he said that “a lie can spread halfway around the world while the truth it still putting its boots on”.
The difference is, back in the 19th century they didn’t have Twitter.
Now the truth has hardly a moment to get out of bed, never mind puts its boot on, before a lie has flown from New York to New Delhi. The sheer speed with which incorrect information can spread and mutate across the entire world is unprecedented. On average, a false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker than a true one does, according to a global study by Science Magazine.
We often talk about the short-term implications of this – how it impacts our political climate, our elections. But perhaps the most scary thought is what happens to a generation of children and young people who are brought up on an information diet full of the artificial sugars and saturated fats of spurious headlines and false facts.
In our own research, we found that while over half (57.2%) of the British public say that technology enables new ways of learning, not everyone is confident about the consequences. In fact, two-fifths of the British public are anxious about technology’s impact on media and the way it enables people to access fake news and incorrect information.
The need to prepare the next generation for today’s media climate is becoming ever more urgent. With AI making the creation of fake images, videos, and audio files far easier and more accessible in the form of ‘deepfakes’, it is vital for people to be able to distinguish between inaccurate and valid information.
“Now the truth has hardly a moment to get out of bed, never mind puts its boot on, before a lie has flown from New York to New Delhi.”
How can we go about arming the next generation to navigate this world? And what role do businesses have to play? Our Ambassador Programme helps build digital skills and awareness of technology, and with that comes a responsibility to educate on its pitfalls. From this experience, here are some steps educational establishments can consider taking when getting fake news on the curriculum:
Understanding the lingo
There is something very powerful about giving a phenomenon a name. It’s a way to identify it, to mark it out in people’s minds. We often take it for granted that people understand what bias and satire mean, but to navigate the modern information jungle it’s vital to understand precisely what these are.
After all, being able to name something in the classroom enables you to spot it in the wild. ‘Fake news’ as a term only emerged fairly recently, and was popularised by the 2016 US General Election. To be able to identify it, young people need to understand how ‘real’ news is designed to inform, while fake news is usually designed to mislead and/or mobilise people behind a cause without regards for the truth.
Compare & contrast
Once the concepts are understood, make them real. Taking real examples of credible news, satire, and fake news and comparing how they are written, what kind of sources they use, and what message they are trying to impart, can help do this. Fake news often uses manufactured outrage to generate a powerful emotional impact and therefore make an impression, and it’s useful to explore this tactic openly.
Cite your sources
Students often learn the importance of using credible sources and citing them in their essays. Why not apply this practice to information they get in the real world?
Often, fake news is based on misinformation, dubious studies from politically motivated sources, or deliberate misinterpretation of the facts. Teaching students to follow the dots can help them spot the difference. Moreover, showing them fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com, arms students with the tools to do so relatively easy.
“If our young people’s thoughts are clouded with terrifying notions of an AI-led apocalypse, how will we get them to understand the nuances of the technology and drive it forward in a way that benefits us all?”
In the digital age there are many underhand methods to spread fake news, such as imitating a real news site to give it a veneer of legitimacy. This could take the form of a URL which closely echoes a well-known publication, or a very similar website design. Web-savvy digital natives are well-placed to spot these kind of tricks, but it’s worth raising awareness.
Making it social
Many social media platforms essentially treat all media as undifferentiated content, which makes it hard to distinguish between fake and credible news. As young people tend to be pretty active on social media, it is important to discuss how they work and how they can (however unknowingly) enable fake news to spread.
A business imperative?
While it’s clear that it’s important for educational establishments to educate their students about fake news, why should private companies care? Let’s take an example – artificial intelligence is generating a lot of alarming headlines at the moment, some of which implies it is something to be terrified of and suppress. Yet, to most experts, it’s clear that the technology has huge potential to drive our economy and society forward, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s recent speech on how AI can be used to massively reduce avoidable cancer deaths through more accurate diagnosis. It will therefore likely become a major part of working life over the next few decades.
If our young people’s thoughts are clouded with terrifying notions of an AI-led apocalypse, how will we get them to understand the nuances of the technology and drive it forward in a way that benefits us all? Clearly, business needs sharp minds that can critically analyse information, especially as the pace of technological change accelerates. Combatting fake news is the first step to nurturing these.
And businesses can do this in all kind of ways. They can, for example, lend their own expertise – especially technological – to explore some of the mechanisms that enable fake news to spread on the internet. They can also use this technical capacity to help schools understand these elements themselves.
To learn more about Fujitsu’s work in education, visit fujitsu.com/education.