Fake News has infiltrated main stream media and in many cases is much more difficult to distinguish from the real thing in comparison to the typical fake news stories of my youth. You know the ones, they all seemingly involved aliens, Big Foot or other hyperbolic fantasies. It was easy to tell they were fake merely due to the far-fetched nature of the headlines; take “I Was Big Foot’s Love Slave”, or “Cuba Launches Shark Attack on US”, or how about “Uncle Sam Owes Me: Aging Space Alien Applies for Social Security”. There’s no mistaking any of those headlines for reality. Today, though, the lines are far less clear-cut. False stories riddle mainstream news making it difficult to figure out what is credible. As Dr. Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt noted in their article Developing Critical Literacies: What We Need to Know in a “Fake News” World,
False stories are no longer relegated to tabloid publications but instead have infiltrated more mainstream media sources and social networking services. While the ludicrous claims of tabloid fare were meant mostly to entertain, today’s fake news is a more insidious specimen; in many cases, there is a sinister intent to its creation and dissemination. Indeed, the dictionary.com definition of fake news reads: “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc” [emphasis added].
As Couros and Hildebrandt point out, generating ad revenue is the bigger focus today. The internet has allowed us to be much more connected, and thereby created a whole new money-making resource.
Knowing this reminded me to think back to the core concepts espoused in the teaching of media literacy:
- All media are constructions;
- Audiences negotiate meaning in media;
- Media have commercial implications;
- Media contain ideological and value messages
- Media have social and political implications
- Each medium has a unique aesthetic form
I think a new category could be added today, or at least a subset under commercial implications:
- Media uses a variety of methods to make the consumer an active participant in the revenue stream (often unknowingly)
Social media and news streams use algorithms to promote their content, so each and every ‘click’ translates to revenue, but at the same time perpetuates the spread of falsities.
According to an article in Forbes, “What Do Social Media Algorithms Mean For You?” by AJ Agrawal, “engagement is now the crucial No. 1 factor.” Notice that factual evidence or credibility don’t come into play. They aren’t even a consideration. It’s engagement that runs algorithms and therefore what we see. Take a look at this video to learn more about news and social media algorithms.
Algorithms, data use, revenue streams, the whole insidious nature of the spread of fake news like a plague really emphasize how now, more than ever, teaching media literacy needs to be incorporated in a thorough approach with emphasis on deep critical thinking. This goes beyond the typical check for currency, reliability, accuracy, authority, and purpose. It also needs to go beyond a cursory look in English or literacy class.
New concepts involved in media literacy need to be addressed, namely those very algorithms mentioned earlier. Twenty five years ago, when media literacy was the popular “5th” compulsory English course, mathematical concepts were certainly not part of its curriculum and I never imagined that they would become a part of teaching media literacy, but here we are. This underscores to me that media literacy shouldn’t be relegated only to English class, but embedded across all areas of study, thus improving not only the media and digital literacy levels of our students, but also their awareness of the interconnected nature of everything.