I wouldn’t be the first person to state that 2017 brought on a flurry of new terminologies that have made navigating our news feeds a frustrating mire of argument, oddity, and aggravation. New terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” have come to the fore in strange and unexpected ways. Never before has such an assault on trusted sources of information been a daily reality.
And yet, here we are: entering 2018 with a brand new lexicon of ideological half-truths and cultural mistrusts that make the turn of the 20th century seem docile and organized by comparison.
Unfortunately, because almost all of this happens on social media, the people being inundated and confused by all of this bizarre rhetoric are our children. It’s bad enough that most adults don’t have the tools to effectively wade through the swamp of social media’s non-news opinion minefield, but sharing and explaining all of that to kids is twice as complicated.
Look, Amanda is a teacher. I’m an academic. We’re not “elitists” by any stretch of the imagination. But we do have to deal in facts on a regular basis, and we have to help younger people navigate through all of the information out there so they can produce a cogent understanding of what’s going on in the world.
Here’s a breakdown of the discussion, and how you can organize these things for the younger people (and even some older ones, if necessary).
There’s no escaping the fact that anyone with an opinion of any subject will have a bias. So yes, there are news sources that are more or less biased than others. The assault on “mainstream media” (MSM) relies on this fact to gain momentum; but in reality, facts are still only facts.
Explain to your kids that when people form an opinion, it can be difficult for them to change their minds, even if the facts tell a different story. Some people have an agenda, and they’ll tell a story from their own perspective that supports that agenda.
Consider going on a complete social media purge of news. If something newsworthy appears in your news feed, don’t click on it. Don’t get your news from Twitter or Facebook. Instead, stick to your local sources for local news, and go with source news for anything bigger than that (www.apnews.com or www.reutersnews.com, for example). There will still be some slant to the story, but it won’t be filtered through the production arm.
Or better yet, go completely news-free. There’s very little in the news that will affect your day-to-day life anyway. If something important happens, someone will let you know.
Opinion is frustrating. Somewhere along the way we got used to the idea that “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” It’s often a phrase evoked to end an argument for which there is no support.
It’s absolutely true: everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However, it’s also just as true that their opinion could be wrong, if the facts don’t support it. Make it clear to your kids that people who spend their lives studying a subject are likely to have a much more reliable opinion than someone who just feels a certain way about it.
You can have an opinion, but it should be supported by actual evidence. For this reason, it should also be flexible enough to be changed by the evidence.
A popular argument used online is the argument from authority. This is a logical fallacy that claims that just because a person of authority says something it’s more likely to be true.
This runs right up against what I said about opinions. An expert is, by definition, an authority. However, if the facts don’t hold up, that expert’s position is wrong no matter how much respect that person has or how many books they’ve sold.
The worst versions of this are celebrity crusaders; people who have a great deal of fame using that popularity to bolster their unfounded claims or opinions. Kids need to be made aware that something might not be true just because a popular singer or actor says it is. Chances are it’s not, and they should be encouraged to look into what the actual experts have said.
A true expert will be able to present the information that lead to their conclusion.
Another argument that tends to ride the wave of public opinion is the fallacy known as argumentum ad populum, or argument from popular opinion. This one holds that the greater the number of adherents, the more likely a story is to be true.
The truth is, neither the number of people who believe something, nor the strength of their belief, is evidence that it’s true. This is why the “court of public opinion” is so powerful…and corrupt. Careers and lives can be destroyed when public opinion takes over, and the viral effect of social media can destroy someone who hasn’t actually done anything wrong.
Be sure your kids know that public opinion is only opinion, and this kind of viral opinion is the most drastic form of bullying imaginable.
Remember that lady who sued McDonald’s over the temperature of their coffee? Public opinion turned her into a money-grubbing lunatic. She was, in fact, an innocent senior whose coffee was actually far hotter than regulation temperature, and she had to undergo multiple surgeries and years of painful rehabilitation.
Public opinion was wrong, and not based on facts. And it all but destroyed her.
Fake News, False News, and Satire
I grew up watching the Royal Canadian Air Farce and making fun of The Enquirer with my parents. Before I hit high school I knew how funny political satire was, and what constituted an obvious fabrication.
Honestly, the number of times celebrities got abducted by aliens or had affairs with Bigfoot during my childhood was staggering.
Today, satire is a lot more subtle, but it’s still obvious — if you know what to look for (hint: most satire sites actually say they’re satire right on the page…so, there is that). What’s troubling is that in a lot of cases even satirical news stories about certain political figures are actually plausible, despite their level of absurdity.
I can’t really give an example of “fake news,” because that tends to be the term bandied about by figures who simply don’t like the slant of a particular story. A recent study revealed, for example, that people of a certain political stripe were statistically more likely to consider negative news about their favoured politician to be “fake,” whether it was factual or not.
It’s worth discussing, however, whether the story itself is fake, or even false, or if the presentation is biased enough to affect the way the information shared. Make sure you take the time to show kids the difference between these three kinds of non-news. And, if they’re old enough to get the joke, show them around some great satire content:
Consider these definitions (which are purely my own for clarification):
False news is news that’s essentially impossible, and obviously completely made up (like the celebrity Bigfoot affair).
Fake news is news about what’s actually happening, so tightly spun with bias that it hinges on conspiracy theory. OR it’s negative news about a leader whose followers simply don’t accept the truth.
Satire is often fact based (because it lampoons the news of the day), but has a humorous twist. That twist is often a hysterical exaggeration or something completely off the wall. The point is usually that, while it’s obviously not true, it’s within the character (or caricature, really) of the target that it wouldn’t be inconceivable.
Memes and Clickbait
These are, without a doubt, the most virulent form of spreading false information online.
A meme is an image, usually with text, meant to convey a short, poignant message. In the case of forcing paranoia, they’ll often take an old news image, give it a new (completely made up and unrelated) headline, and take out a sizable ad spend to spread the meme as virally as possible in order to create a huge amount of traffic and engagement.
Clickbait is a method of creating a headline or text that triggers an immediate response (a click) from the reader, desperate to find out more.
Together, these form the basis of the vast majority of contentious content on social media. They?re the modern format of those email forwards you used to get from relatives, thinking they were spreading urgent messages and warnings.
- “Government Official Admits Fluoride is a Mind-Control Experiment!”
- “Sharia Law Happening RIGHT NOW In the USA!!”
- “WARNING: Flashing Your Headlights Can Have Deadly Consequences!”
- “Children’s Doctor Exposes TRUTH About Vaccines!”
- “Margarine is One Molecule Away from Plastic!”
You get the idea.
A lot of these modern memes are making a comeback from the older days of email forwards. Those were designed to get you to send to everyone on your email contacts list, so the originator could trace it and eventually send them spam.
Now they’re designed to get as many viral responses as possible on Facebook, and ideally lead to clicks which can be sold for advertising dollars. The Facebook Inbox version is designed to get hold of your contacts as well.
DO NOT TAKE THESE SERIOUSLY
In fact, if you see one from any of your friends you have several choices: look the content up on snopes.com and share the results (educate them — leads to drawn out discussions), hide the post (ignore the content), or block the person (ignore the friend).
That’s you. For your kids, make sure they know that if something seems like it’s screaming about the end of the world or poisoning everyone they know and love, chances are it’s a clickbait scare. Look it up on Snopes with them, and discuss the results (even if it’s “true” or “partly true,” there’s still a conversation about overreaction).
Finally, be involved and know what your kids are looking at. Open discussions about what’s in the news and what’s making headlines are always great topics of conversation and a great way to lead your kids along in your personal values.
Just be sure you’re doing it openly, rationally, and sensitively. Help them ignore the unimportant, and know that it’s possible to be an informed citizen without getting mired in debate. It will make time online so much more social, and so much less depressing.
Have you had any experience dealing with the overwhelm of negative news online? How did you (and your kids) handle it? Are you planning on a low-information diet like we are? Let us know in the comments!