i dream of being possible

on the problem of fake news and info lit

I tweeted about this when I first saw it on twitter but after talking with some colleagues yesterday, I think it deserves a full post. Last week or something a study came out showing how students have trouble telling the difference between real and fake news. And a bunch of ppl are all up in arms about this and wondering wtf is up with kids these days and how us librarians can teach them to be critical thinkers.

Stuff like this tends to annoy the fuck out of me because these are just conclusions drawn without looking at the larger info/tech environment in which we live. While the above might be true, that younger people have more trouble telling fake from real, a recent Pew study also says:

Young adults follow the news less closely, and they have more negative attitudes about the news media. But they are more likely than their elders to get news online… Attitudinally, they are more negative toward the news media, displaying lower levels of both approval of news organizations and trust in the information they get from them.

While there were participants younger than the Pew study in the other one, there is an overlap here.

I find it interesting that although ‘kids these days’ have difficulty distinguishing fake news from real news, they also trust the news the consume much less than people older than them. This includes traditional news media brands.

So it looks like, overall, young people are more skeptical about the news they read online than is assumed. Especially by alarmist studies like the ‘zomg! they can’t tell real from fake!’ ones. Because if the current problem is that the online world is proliferagating with fake news, doesn’t part of the solution appear to be maintain a healthy skepticism for all news? This apparently is already the attitude young people have. Which is good.

It also plays into the points I made on twitter. Lamenting the lack of a discerning eye in young people when they are the products of a tech/info environment designed to train them into this seems a bit… victim blamey. It isn’t a secret that all news brands and all social media are driven by advertising. Except that people don’t like ads, especially online. So the current trend is to have promoted content that looks almost exactly like the content produced by your friends.

Given that the Pew study also noted that young people prefer to get their news via mobile, the situation with promoted content is so much worse on mobile. In mobile apps, because there is only one column of information, the designers work very hard to ensure that advertising and other shit looks nearly identical to posts by your family. I find I have the most trouble with this on Instagram, personally (most likely bc of my non-verbal learning disorder).

And this situation really isn’t even all that new. One of Google’s major advertising breakthrough on the web was having paid content look almost the same as unpaid. Their search engine was a bastion of minimalism during a time on the web when banner ads and popups were fucking everywhere. But on their page? Nothing. And when you searche for something, the ads looked just like the other search results. Just links with some desriptive text. Thus began the era of tricking users into clicking on ads.

Look. Its also important to remember that this advertising? From social media to news brands alike? Is huge fucking business. These companies collectively devote billions (probably) of dollars towards staying on top of user behaviour and finding new ways for us to click on ads. See and that’s the thing, right? What they need to accomplish is quite simple. Just one fucking click. Its easy. If they only got money if a person who clicks on an ad spends, idk, two minutes on the landing page, I imagine a great deal of this money would disappear.

But what ‘we’ have to teach? Info lit? That isn’t easy. Because it isn’t (or ought not to be) just about training people on how not to click on ads, which is basically a lot of what the first study is really focused on. They want people to discern the difference between a ‘real’ news link/source and a ‘fake’ news link/sources that is the result of millions of dollars of invested time and labour, just so that the student won’t click. And if they do, that they can quickly look around at see where they went wrong. Except at that point it doesn’t matter because the advertiser has already won.

We’ve also reached a point where many of the usual tools for trying to discern ‘real’ from ‘fake’ simply have no meaning. Once upon a time it made the most sense to point people in the direction of a news media brand. But… I mean. After the last american election and the coverage of it (amongst many, many other examples) its pretty clear that established news brands can’t (and should not be) trusted. At least not blindly.

And I think it is also this reality which informs the young adults in Pew’s study. Why they have less trust and less approval than any other demographic. Makes perfect sense to me. Studies like the first one love to portray young people as unwilling dupes who just don’t know any better. That something like this is a crisis rather than the intentional result of corporate strategy and investment.

Kids/young adults/studens of any age aren’t, in fact, fucking stupid. Being unable to tell the difference between a carefully constructed fraud and an ‘authentic’ bit of information isn’t a fault that lies with them. And, it seems to me, that they’ve also reached the most natural conclusion/attitude in such an information environment: they trust everything they see/read less than their elders.

The only way I can see this situation changing in any meaningful way is if the web, as we know it, stops running on advertising. Because the moment we develop some kind of rubric for spotting native ads vs actual content, the people at facebook or google will already have new kinds of ads to roll out. This is the funhouse mirror of information. Every step you take into the room the already distorted images just shift and change. And we are often left with time-tested strategy of trial and error to find our way through.

I honestly think that the only way to actually deal with such a situation is to nurture the skepticism that young people already have in news organizations. Nurture it, develop it, and make it their primary way for approaching the news. Or, an even better solution, is to wrest the internet away from advertising and corporate interests (but I doubt this’ll happen any time soon).