Fake news is not a new phenomenon. However, the unprecedented speed and volume of its propagation is great cause for concern. The digitisation and subsequent democratisation of the media landscape has allowed actors such as foreign governments and radical fringe ideologues to have a far easier time disseminating information.
For the purposes of this paper, fake news will be characterised as news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false and could mislead readers. This definition is the most reflective of the current phenomenon and is widely agreed upon by academics (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017; Chadwick 2017). This paper will address responses to fake news with regard to young people.
Young people were chosen based on three key considerations. Firstly, this generation of people are digital natives, and their lives will be shaped disproportionately compared to other groups by technology, technology which has been used to spread fake news. Secondly, it is important they in particular recognise and be equipped to deal with fake news, given that they are extremely impressionable and many habits and important concepts are ingrained at this age. Thirdly, this also means that this group can be better inoculated against such fake news, allowing policy makers to adopt a preventative rather than reactive approach in dealing with fake news.
Inadequacies of Fact-Checking
Fact-checking, at its most basic level, simply seeks to flag out content with questionable truth value, seen in Facebook’s implementation of tags that label possible fake news articles as disputed, but with many going further to refute given claims through providing counterfactuals backed by more reliable sources, seen in organisations such as Factcheck.org and Politico. Fact-checking is currently the most widely employed means of countering fake news, used by various actors from government, to grassroots-based organisations and technology companies.
Fact-checking is a highly problematic means of countering fake news. Firstly, fact-checking is undercut by innate human cognitive tendencies. Humans have the tendency to simply accept information when presented with it, forming beliefs, and even when presented with opposing information, will still continue to retain their belief (Anderson, Lepper & Ross, 1980). This is known as belief perseverance. In fact, individuals are likely to reject information that conflicts with their existing beliefs and cling to those beliefs even more tightly (Silverman, 2017; Romm, 2014; Nyhan & Reifler, 2006). This is the backfire effect. Thus, individuals who are exposed to fake news and buy into fake news often persist in their beliefs, which may even be strengthened when presented with corrective information.
This means that dislodging information from a person’s brain is far more difficult than getting them to accept it in the first place, and that the effort that fact-checkers spend on disproving a claim is disproportionate to the effort put into creating the claim (Gilbert, Krul & Malone, 1990). Donald Trump can simply assert that the Iran Deal would allow Iran to continue making nuclear weapons (‘Remarks by President Trump and President Buhari’, 2018), but the fact-checkers have to painstakingly go through the deal, explain the specific context and nuances that makes that statement misleading and cross-reference it to other reliable sources to convince people otherwise (Rizzo, 2018). The time it takes for a fact-check can take as little as 15 to 30 minutes, but typically it takes much longer for more elaborate claims, up to 1 to 2 days (Hassan, Hamilton, Li & Adair, 2015). This makes fact-checking an extremely labour- and time-intensive process.
Fact-checking organisations are often operate on an extremely small scale with lean budgets and personnel counts. Snopes, a highly reputable and established fact-checking organisation only hires 17 staff. 26 out of 42 fact-checking organisations that met at the 2017 Global fact-checking summit operated on budgets below $100,000 (Kessler, 2018). This lack of resources, compounded by the fact that fact-checking is a highly labour-intensive process as discussed earlier, means that the ability of these organisations to identify and counter false information is seriously undermined.
Despite the advances in machine learning and the development of Automated Fact-Checking (AFC) technology, the efficacy of such technology is still highly questionable. This is due to the complex nature of fake news, where information is not just simply presented in discrete packets, but rather paints a whole picture and lies along a gradient of truthfulness, and also due to the complexities in the language used to communicate the news. Many of these programmes work by recognising recurring patterns in the fake news content. Training these systems to identify fake news requires feeding a large volume of such content into the system in order for it to recognise and pick out patterns. AFCs are often unable to be trained well because of the lack of training data which is vetted and compiled by human fact-checkers.
Furthermore, utilising pattern recognition to identify fake news is still far from sufficient because the AFC cannot take into consideration the context and nuances of the language used – aspects that are key to distinguishing fake news (Brookes, 2018). AFCs thus have no genuine understanding of what fake news is, which renders them ineffective. Given that AFCs lack such sensitivity, they end up highly dependent on human operators, which means that the limitations of manual fact-checking that AFCs sought to overcome still persist.
Even if AFCs did possess a firm grasp on the language, another problem is the lack of a database to cross-refer information to. As Chengkai Li, a professor and one of the creators of ClaimBuster, a fact-checking software, puts it, “The big challenge is the lack of data sources. Understanding the claim and formulating the query and sending the query to the source, that’s one challenge. But another challenge is the lack of authoritative and comprehensive data. It’s not just about the technical solutions, it’s about the lack of data quality” (Hassan, Li, Arslan & Tremayne, 2017). This is extremely important because fact-checking cannot be done in a vacuum, because the validity of information can only be ascertained in the presence of other sources. This means that AFCs are only as good as their database, a database which still lacking in many areas.
In conclusion, fact-checking as solution is limited in feasibility because of its inherently labour-intensive nature and attempts to automate it have run into serious and difficult problems. Fact-checking as an approach is also fundamentally problematic due to its reactive nature and human psychological inclinations.
Preventative Approaches Taken in Singapore
Therefore, a preventative approach should be adopted as it is able to circumvent the problems posed by fact-checking. One such preventative approach that is currently in use is media literacy education.
While the government acknowledges the importance of media literacy, Singapore has done surprisingly little to augment media literacy education to combat fake news. Currently media literacy education places a focus on cyber wellness, which highlights the risks and dangers of digital spaces while encouraging individuals to adopt responsible practices. The Media Literacy Council (MLC), a public education and engagement initiative by the government that provides resources that include advice on combating cyberbullying, online safety, dealing with “trolls”and dealing with screen addiction. This lack of emphasis of on critical media reading skills is also made abundantly clear from their stated objectives, where critical evaluation and interpretation of media is overshadowed by objectives geared towards cyber wellness, with 4 out of the 5 objectives targeting the latter (Media Literacy Council, n.d).
While no official media literacy education exists in schools, many of the relevant skills are taught informally through other subjects. For example, one of the objectives of the English Syllabus is to empower students to “read between the lines and view for implied meanings, analyse the underlying meaning of visual messages, offer interpretive judgment, and question and evaluate what is read from a variety of sources, including the writers’ intentions/assumptions and soundness of the argument,” which is a key aspect of media literacy education (Ministry of Education, 2010). Similarly, the social studies and history curriculum make use of source-based case study (SBCS) questions to test students’ ability to understand and analyse sources, requiring them to discern the reliability, utility and purpose of sources through cross referencing. The ability to judge the reliability of a source and infer its agenda is highly valued for media literacy (Ministry of Education, 2016; Ministry of Education, 2017).
Yet, despite these educational efforts, a recent 2017 survey conducted by the IPSOS showed that while 79% of Singaporeans felt that they were somewhat confident in identifying fake news, 91% wrongly identified one headline as real when showed 5 fake news articles. A significant proportion (55%) of young people aged 15 to 24 also had the experience of erroneously believing fake news (Ng, 2018). This shows that media literacy skills of Singaporeans still leave much to be desired.
This may be due to how the media literacy skills taught in schools are not introduced explicitly as such and are always couched in the school context, being taught as skills to score on their English Paper 2 or to do their SBCSs. As such, students may not see those media literacy skills taught in school as transferable to the context of their day-to-day media consumption, and end up not applying these skills.
Another reason which contributes to students not applying the skills in a real-world context could be the manner information is presented. In social studies or history, a full set of sources is presented together, making it easier to carry out cross-referencing, compared to fake news, where only the article in question is shown and students need to seek out their own reliable sources.
Even when students want to apply these media literacy skills, they often run into difficulty doing so. The analysis of sources in SBCSs is often carried out by students with some grasp of the contextual knowledge taught by the syllabus relevant to the source, which helps them make judgements about it. Students looking a piece of 1930s Nazi Propaganda in their SBCS would have been aware of the context of Hitler vying for power during this period and this would have informed their judgment of the source. However, more often than not, those reading fake news may not have the relevant knowledge to make those judgments, especially since the nature of news implies that it is usually new information. Students reading an article from the Institute of Historical Review (IHR) would generally find it a trustworthy source, if not for the fact that it is an organisation flagged by the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum, the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), and various other credible historical journals for having an anti-semitic holocaust-denying agenda, a fact that many are unfortunately unaware of (‘The Institute of Historical Review’,n.d; Southern Poverty Law Centre, n.d).
Therefore, to remedy the problems, I propose the creation of a media literacy curriculum to be taught in schools at every educational level. There are two parts to this: the first part concerns itself with educating students to be discerning about media and journalism in general, while the second deals specifically with digital literacy, teaching students to be discerning in the specific context of digital media.
For the first prong, media literacy education should be revamped to shift away from its current focus on cyber wellness as advocated by the MLC, and instead stress the dangers of fake news and the skills required to counter misinformation, giving students a more balanced view of media literacy. The educational outcomes of the curriculum should be as such:
- Recognise the difference between journalism and other kinds of information and between journalists and other information purveyors;
- In the context of journalism, recognise the difference between news and opinion;
- In the context of news stories, analyse the difference between assertion and verification and between evidence and inference;
- Evaluate and deconstruct news reports across all news media platforms, based on the quality of evidence presented and the reliability of sources;
- Distinguish between news media bias and audience bias.
These are the skills and competencies deemed important by the Center for News Literacy, which has successfully run media literacy programmes in 30 countries to shape students into informed discerning citizens equipped with the tools to recognise and critically consume media (‘What is News Literacy?’,n.d).
This curriculum should also make use of inoculation theory to pre-emptively debunk commonly spread false information (Compton, Jackson & Dimmock, 2016). Two key aspects underline the inoculation process: the presentation of threats to current beliefs and values, and the refutational preemption. The presentation of threats warns them of impending challenges to their beliefs and motivates students to protect them. Studies demonstrate that even forewarnings of such nature make people less receptive to persuasion. The refutational preemption works by exposing people to weaker versions of arguments which equips them with the tools to debunk more persuasive versions of the arguments in the future, much like how vaccines function by introducing weakened viruses into the body such that antibodies are built up which protect the body when the virus is encountered again (Goh, Soon, 2017). By going through the process of rebutting these arguments that challenge their beliefs, students will have the opportunities to defend and thereby strengthen their beliefs, making them more ready to refute and reject these arguments in future. An example of this would be students being taught about the impacts of climate change and then warned about fake news which promotes climate change denial, and then presented with information which refutes these claims.
The second part empowers students with the tools to address the unique problems posed by fake news in the context of digital media. Even if students are equipped with the skills to discern fake from genuine news, many skills can only be put into practice with specific knowledge about digital media, because as mentioned earlier, source analysis is heavily reliant on contextual knowledge. One can only make an accurate assessment of a source’s agenda if there is knowledge about the source in the first place. This formal digital information would aim to equip students with specialised knowledge about digital media that would help them in judging media they encounter online, such as:
- Identifying website domains and gauging credibility with that information;
- Learning how to access website source code and gauging credibility with that information;
- Learning about the use of various fact-checking sites and search engines to spot fake information;
- Learning how to use reverse image searches and various other relevant software to identify doctored images or videos.
In an age where anyone anywhere with internet access can become not simply a passive consumer but an active producer of media, the floodgates have been opened for online falsehoods. Given the various inadequacies of stop-gap short-term measures, a careful long-term approach must be adopted to inoculate our youth to resist the influence of such news. However, this only targeted at youth, which leaves large swathes of our population vulnerable to such falsehoods. Further recommendations and research could be carried out to investigate means of countering fake news within Singapore’s population beyond schooling age.
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Slang for those who post deliberately offensive and provocative content online.
Owen Phua (18-A4)