Ever since the internet hit home computers some 20-odd years ago, there has been constant concern about media literacy. With so much unfiltered information at the fingertips, how can students learn to sift the gold from the silt?
In 2001 (I think) one of my high school students wrote a research paper (International Baccalaureate Extended Essay), wherein he recreated a proof of the 5-Colour Map Theorem. (i.e. Any “normal” map can be coloured such that no two adjoining territories are the same colour using 5 colors. Proof of the more difficult 4-colour theorem is beyond the skill of even a very talented high school student.) After consulting the library and doing a bit of research online, he confided to me that this was the first thing he’d ever searched for online that did not bring him to any porn sites. (Search engines have improved considerably since then.)
It’s almost quaint now. With the advent of smart phones and the ubiquity of the internet, students simply do not write research papers that are not largely—or entirely—based on online sources. We do our best to help students to distinguish reputable from disreputable sources in the writing of their papers. I’m not convinced we’re doing a particularly great job.
But what about media literacy outside of school? What is reputable for daily discourse?
As we saw in the recent US election, it is a powerful campaigning trick to assert that your teachers are wrong, that the “mainstream” is hopelessly biased and that the truth is to be found in a few selected online sources.
At first, it’s tempting to sneer at this crass move. But it worked. It’s not clear that the mainstream media will ever recover the respect it once had. What’s worse, the out-of-hand rejection of the mainstream has been accompanied by an uncritical acceptance of websites with no more credibility than the Weekly World News.
Some of these sites, such as Breitbart, are simple propaganda sites. Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart, supports his own version of American Conservatism, and this site seeks to do little other than support his beliefs and to discredit what he sees as the opposition. I find sites like Breitbart to be annoying, but reasonably transparent. Anyone who cares to check to see that it’s at least 60% BS.
(As I write this, I see that Steve Bannon is being rewarded by president-elect Trump with the position of “chief strategist”. Forgive me for shivering as I remember the Soviet paper Pravda.)
But there’s another type of site that’s even more insidious. “Clickbait” sites specialize in promoting enticing headlines on social media, and then generating revenue for advertisers as the curious click in. These sites have content that ranges from pop culture curiosity (e.g. “The 10 Worst Trades in Baseball History” or “5 Famous Wardrobe Malfunctions”). Sometimes they have a Ripley’s Believe it or Not sort of feel to them (“Look at These 20 Epic Break-ups: We Couldn’t Believe #13!”). For the most part these are simply harmless trash. A new form of clickbait showed up during the election.
In these new sites, we saw fake news that claimed to have lurid revelations about a candidate. Very popular this election were fake stories claiming that the Clinton’s had all their enemies murdered. And this was only the beginning. Every evil you could imagine being committed was chronicled in these sites with a shocking tone of sincerity. (Lest I appear partisan, I simply didn’t see any anti-Trump clickbait; but the anti-Hillary stuff rolled across my Facebook feed daily. Not sure what this says about the sites, me, and my friends.)
Most concerning is how persistent the clickbait lies became. I still speak to people who remember the headlines (whether they read the stories or not) and have come to internalize them as authentic. I can’t help but suspect that these lingering after-effects played a significant role in the election.
The reason I find the clickbait sites so insidious is not that they have an agenda. It’s because they don’t. At least not a political agenda. These sites thrive on advertising revenue. They don’t care one bit about truth, falsity, political allegiance, life or death or anything else. All they want is your click and the fractions of a penny it will bring. Because the online world is so big, it’s not out of the question to get a hundred thousand clicks a month. Ad blockers looked to gaining the upper hand a while ago, but the sites are finding ways to avoid the issue altogether.
And I am convinced that the constant attack on the mainstream media led many to the partisan sites.
I cannot imagine the situation getting any better in the future.
Which brings us to the role of education. I can’t help but think that education has a role to play, but I’m not sure exactly what that role must be. The terrain is shifting daily. By the time we figure out what to say about partisan and clickbait sites, they will have transformed into something else.
In my more depressed thoughts, I fear that the race is already lost.