“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” – Winston Churchill.
We are facing an epidemic. Never before have people been able to access the totality of human knowledge as easily as now. Not only is the access readily available but the sheer amount of information available is truly staggering. Yet, it appears that the shadow of ignorance has only grown whilst the light of truth has waned.
Heavy-handed metaphors aside, it is disheartening and at times, terrifying how just flat- out wrong, misinformed, and ignorant our fellow citizens can be. On a personal note, I deleted my facebook a month ago and it has been the most liberating experience. No longer am I constantly exposed to absolute cancer that is facebook comments. And that is not just solely due to people being jerks.
It would be one thing if people were correct in their assertions but came across as snobbish or rude. Obviously, no one can be 100% correct all the time, mistakes happen but what happens in our online discourse and has seeped into our real life discourse is what is killing civility and our ability to see other perspectives.
That thing is Truthiness. Coined by current Late Night host Stephen Colbert, truthiness is something that feels true or seems to be true, regardless of whether it actually is.
This was already an issue well before the era of “fake news”, but this new era (#darkesttimeline) has only exacerbated this existing issue. Add in some tried and true logical fallacies (confirmation bias, sample size, etc.) and you’ve suddenly had, otherwise thoughtful, people believing that these images or stories are true.
Like this picture of George W. Bush (to whom I must thank for the name of this blog) is seen holding a children’s book upside down. Regardless of your ideology and political beliefs/party. This should set off all kinds of alarm bells. But many gobbled up this photoshop and presented it as just another reason why W. was “too stupid” to be President.
The Trump photo is so outlandish I can’t even begin to express how frustrating it is to imagine anyone believing it was real. Yet, some did and it spread across email forwards and Facebook pages last year like wildfire. Finally, we have President Obama taking public transportation next to a sleeping commuter. I’m sure Secret Service was fine with the Head of State riding a busy train. Certainly, there couldn’t be any security threats to contend with. He rides the train just like you and me!
My students, our students are having just as hard of a time as our grandparents from discerning the real news stories and photos from the fake. Russian and former Eastern Bloc countries spend thousands of dollars and man-hours on spreading fake news. Their goal is simple, sow discord and further drive a wedge between Americans. As teachers of history, we have to recognize that propaganda and fake news aren’t new. The only thing that has changed is technology. If the Gutenberg was a smoothbore musket, then the internet is an AK-47. Faster firing, easier to use and in some parts of the world more than others: deadly.
What is to be done? Well, first
we need to form a political party for workers to unite under and become the vanguard of the revolution! Sorry, Lenin was at the keyboard for a second. As educators, we must bring our own biases. We should recognize that first and foremost and inform our students that we, like them, aren’t infallible. Second and more importantly, we must give them the tools they need to spot fake stories and pictures.
FactCheck.org has a great checklist for students to consider especially regarding news stories. All educators should take make lessons for our students to determine if stories are real or fake. Is the source credible? Who wrote it? Is it sponsored-content? Are other outlets reporting it? These are all good questions to ask, but there is something more we need to do.
An often overlooked aspect for fakery is images and video. Without technical knowledge of photo and video editing, it becomes much harder to discern what was real and what is fake. Do some pixels appear out of focus? Is there blurring around edges? Do proportions look off? Lighting is a major issue and very tough to fake but if you don’t view it with a skeptical lens, you may gloss over it. Does the audio sound too good for the environment the video takes place? Are there any obvious cuts or edits to the audio? Is the big “gotcha” moment preceded by a jump cut or other edit? Why were they filming in the first place? Even for the less tech-capable among us, we should learn how to spot these issues, because if we cannot, how can we expect our students to?
Thankfully, history has so many journalistic lessons and activities that can help students learn what actual journalism entails and teach them the questions they should ask of their local, regional, and national reporting outlets.
Film-making can help students learn those technical skills but also let students’ interests take them to their destination. In global studies class, students can develop a video guide to traveling to a different country. This requires that they do research, learn customs, and speak with people that come from different backgrounds.
In history class, the members of the civil rights movement are still alive. What personal and emotional stories do they have to offer? Such rich personal histories are untapped, begging for an audience. The hardships and horrors of wars both old and new are waiting to be told to a new generation.
Civics classes can explore the nuances of local government and how it affects those more proportionally than many national and state policies. Why are certain rules and regulations in place? Who creates them? What recourse does the average person have to combat policies they feel are unjust? Are there policies at school that should be reconsidered? If so, how can that change be brought about?
Economics, a journalistic approach can be taken to explore popular consumer items among their peers. Why did “x product” become so popular? Was it just a fad? Who profited from its popularity? Has there been a product in the past that resembled this one? If so, what was its path to market and is it still around today?
Finally, we just have to stop being lazy. We have to put in the work to verify something is accurate. Yes, we don’t want to start questioning every news story or event like a tinfoil-wearing loony, we still must do our due diligence. Or we become part of the problem we’re seeking to solve.
So if you believe that Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” then I have bad news for you: He didn’t.
Johnathan Swift said something similar around 200 years before Churchill was battling in the Gallipoli Campaign. Then in 1855, 19 years before Churchill entered the world, Charles Haddon Spurgeon a London preacher popularized it.
“You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” – Abraham Lincoln