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Fake news & how media literacy is protective

When young people in the Balkan country of Macedonia create fake news sites like and make good money off of all the American voter traffic their uber-grabby headlines generate (true story, from BuzzFeed), this is not the new Nigerian Internet scam. I think we’re seeing that this is a history-changing problem that affects everybody, not just the people who were duped.

"truth" amid all the fake newsFake news is big news right now, and I’ll get to where it comes from and what’s being done about it in a minute. First, what struck me about reading the BuzzFeed story was the opportunity it represented – for students and educators. In addition to being a cultural, economic and geopolitical problem, fake news is a media literacy challenge.

More than ever before in history, this is a call for media literacy education. And what better way to develop that literacy than by giving students a news story about fake news and asking them to solve this problem?

Four university students did, the Washington Post reported – at a hackathon at Princeton University sponsored by Facebook and other Internet-related companies. They came up with a mostly tech solution – a browser plug-in that could verify whether a Facebook post was factual or fake. Tech is only part of the solution, though. What if students read the very human BuzzFeed story and were charged with coming up with at least three non-tech solutions to the very human problem it depicts?

The media conditions

So about fake news: It’s a serious ongoing social problem created by a perfect storm of media conditions plus human conditions. The key media ones are:

  • A media “pipeline” that outputs into devices that go with us everywhere and has everything running through it – entertainment, news, opinion, fiction, research, advertising – in an undifferentiated way from every direction (up and laterally from the grassroots, in from and out to other countries, down from podiums, etc.).
  • New media companies that have only just begun figuring out what news is, from a journalist’s perspective, and are only just thinking together with journalists about how to deploy algorithms that distinguish it from fiction, as well as human fact-checkers
  • The filter bubbles Eli Pariser warned of in his 2011 TED Talk, where social media algorithms feed people what fits them or what they like to see and hear, making it harder to be exposed to other perspectives than not to be.
  • A 24-hour news cycle that fills its vast “news hole” with tiny stories, non-stories and stories about news stories that, in the mass-media era of 25-min. news shows, would never make it to the level of “news” – as well as vast amounts of commentary from talking heads. And that’s from mainstream news.
  • People “publishing” stuff shaped by a whole spectrum of intentions: everything from purely/honestly financial (e.g., the Macedonian teens) to drama & fear-mongering to power- and attention-seeking to an honest interest in contributing to the public discussion.

The human conditions

  • That these media conditions are so new to us all (even media literacy practitioners only in the past 10 or so years started adjusting to media that’s behavioral, uploadable, networked)
  • That there’s so little actionable public awareness of those new media conditions and our unprecedented need for social literacy and media literacy to deal with them
  • That, because of the fire hose of media of every quality level coming at us 24/7, we have so little time or patience to reflect on the implications and impacts of “the news” on us, our society (much less the world) and
  • That we seem to have even less time and patience to learn how our children view and handle “news,” in their everyday lives and in media
  • I’m sure you readers will think of more, so please add them to comments below!

What will fix this problem will take a lot of skill sets brought together: those of journalists, media literacy practitioners, educators, people who write code, media companies and media consumers, sharers and creators. Algorithms will be part of the solution, certainly, but even tech companies are acknowledging that tech all by itself won’t cut it. In an open “Call for Cooperation Against Fake News,” journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and tech/media startup investor John Borthwick list a broad variety of “tangible suggestions for action.” Facebook and Google are on it, though reluctantly acknowledging that – among other things – they’re now media companies needing expertise in journalistic ethics and practices (because in today’s media environment, there’s no such thing as merely media companies). For example, “Google is collaborating with news organizations through its News Lab program” and learning with other companies about journalistic ethics via Santa Clara University’s, according to a report in It adds that both Google and Facebook are core partners of First Draft News with media companies and nonprofit organizations developing “practical and ethical guidance in how to find, verify and publish content sourced from the social web.”

That’s just on the publishing end. Consumers and sharers need support too. Media Literacy Now and the National Association for Media Literacy Education need to be in the mix, as do educators and students. Like never before, media literacy protects against misinformation, manipulation, financial and property loss, mistakes, fear, stress, conflict and so much more. And I have a strong feeling that, if we give students a problem like fake news to solve, some of the most creative solutions will come from them.

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