Let’s face it: Fake news isn’t just a problem for the left or the right — it’s a problem for all of us.
The internet is the Wild West of polarizing ideas, and new website technology has made it easier for anyone with a computer to create their own biased news site that looks professional and valid. So how do you figure out what’s real and what’s not? Washington State University Vancouver has an answer. It’s participating in a broad new national program that is teaching students how to fact-check their way to the truth.
“The web is both the greatest tool for disinformation ever invented but also the greatest fact-checking engine in the world,” said Michael Caulfield, director of blended and network learning at WSUV. “Once you get good at this stuff, you can get a good idea of the reliability of the source in about 60 seconds.”
Caulfield leads the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project Digital Polarization Initiative, which pretty much everybody just calls DigiPo for convenience. The program is an attempt to build student web literacy while fact-checking stories on Twitter and Facebook.
“We started the project last year as a pilot,” Caulfield said. “We wanted to do something around the issue of fake news, but more broadly there’s a whole range of issues over web information.”
Beyond skewed political sites, he noted, the internet is also host to a broad range of pseudoscientific health claims and clickbait designed to inflame much simpler stories originally reported in local papers.
“What we see in this current web environment is just someone’s summary of a critique of someone else’s reporting,” Caulfield said. “It’s like a game of telephone. You get some original solid reporting, and it passes through reposting and critique until it doesn’t look like the original anymore.”
Tracing the source
One way to combat that is to trace a story back to the original report, and if it pans out, share that instead of the clickbait on Facebook, he said.
Small-town papers are also a good way to fact-check dubious stories of incidents online. If something actually happened, the region’s local papers will have better information than broader national sites, he added
Students in a wide array of classes are participating in the DigiPo program. Other professors typically invite Caulfield in to work with their classes for a few sessions, where he provides some basic tips on fact-checking and introduces them to the DigiPo.io website — which is sort of like a very broad, student-powered version of Snopes.
That site is also open to the public and free, should any nonstudents want to participate, Caulfield added.
Allison Coffin, assistant professor of integrative physiology and neuroscience at WSUV, first piloted the program in her neuroscience capstone class this past spring. The class looks broadly at neuroscience and how it intersects with society.
“When I first saw Mike was spearheading DigiPo, I thought he’d be a great addition to the class,” Coffin said.
Her students embraced the material — and were fascinated by their task of finding dubious stories on Facebook and Twitter and then following them back to whatever source material they could find.
“They really dug into the research,” she said. “There was one group looking at problems with artificial sweeteners. They tracked it down to a European group that had a research agenda.”
After students track down the information, they write up what they’ve found and post it on the DigiPo.io website so others can look at it.
And their work — especially as the project grows — could help to clean up a good chunk of the bad information spreading online, he said.
“You could think of it as information environmentalism,” Caulfield said. “You look at information pollution, complain about it, but also do something to make it better.”
Students sometimes also fix Wikipedia entries or post research articles and then work to push them up in Google search results, he added.
“Maybe it’s a bit like the academic version of Snopes, but it’s much more broad than Snopes,” he said.
Pop psychology claims are another big issue online. Headlines like “are bald men sexier” tend to trend quickly on social media sites, with little real science to back them up.
“So the question is, how can you use the internet to quickly dig into that claim,” Caulfield said.
That’s another case where you can often find the truth by tracing the material back to its source — often to a research paper with a very small finding that’s been blown out of proportion.
And sometimes vague headlines like “taking up the tuba can make you smarter” actually do have some basis in reality, even if they need more study.
“It turns out, if you dig into that, it’s not false,” Caulfield said. “There’s research to suggest that you might in some ways be more intelligent if you take up an instrument. But it’s not exactly true. It’s not a controlled study.”
In Coffin’s class, students also use Google Scholar and other resources to see what sorts of papers a scientific source has written, how much they’ve been published and what universities or research groups they’re associated with.
“If you see someone suspicious in a certain area, you can use that resource and see their work,” she said.
It’s also good to look up the research institutions or agencies and do a little digging on the scope of their work and potential bias, she added.
Politics: The elephant in the room
Of course, the elephant in the room for all online fact-checking is in the political sphere. Politics on the internet have become so polarized and polarizing that even questioning the validity of stories or sources can lead to emotional outbursts and anger.
“The polarization is an elite-driven phenomenon that taps into grass-roots dissatisfaction,” Caulfield said. “People take their cues from the media they read. And it really does move their opinions. People build relationships with media, and as that media drifts to the poles based on the economics of the web, the readership tends to move with it.”
And of course those divisions in our society span far beyond just the internet, even as the internet is currently working as a tool to enhance those divisions.
“It’s really much deeper than the web,” Caulfield said. “The web is fuel on the fire. But we’re looking at a 40-year decline of trust in institutions in this country. When we look at it through that lens, if you have a lot of distrust in institutions — and a lot of that distrust is reasonable — and then you’re met with a media environment that lets you be your own publisher? It’s the combination of those things that are deadly.”
The media landscape has changed so dramatically in the past 20 years with the growth of the internet that it’s almost unrecognizable — with a host of news options, both real and fake, for almost any viewpoint. And that’s also leading to the confusion and isolation of sectors of the public.
“We don’t live in a three-network world anymore,” Caulfield said. “But there’s a problem in that once you try to do that (go to sources that agree with you), it becomes self-reinforcing, and you may end up in communities that are more exclusionary.”
Broadening your scope doesn’t require you to move far from your political ideology, however.
“When we talk about polarization, there’s talk about people on the extreme ends — but they’re not particularly bad,” Caulfield said. “I have some extreme views of my own, and some centrist views. I don’t see that as a problem. The problem is less the polarization and more the isolation. You need to understand perspectives of others away from your own viewpoint.”
Watergate was part of the decline in American trust of institutions. And another dip came during the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1980s, which many Republicans saw as unfair, he noted.
“It turned out to have a pretty strong effect on their perceptions of media,” Caulfield said. “And with the rise of alternative sources of AM radio in the early 1990s, the Democrats became very angry at the way Bill Clinton was handled. Both sides feel they’ve been treated unfairly, and slowly that institutional trust has declined.”
The best thing to broaden your perspective is to simply look at information from those that are close to you but still a bit more to either the left or the right, he said.
But there’s also a problem with media coverage on the right which has a big shortage of center-right sites, beyond the traditional Wall Street Journal, he said.
“The right side is far more polarized than what you see on the left,” Caulfield said. “There just aren’t as many center-right news sources, where on the left there’s a continuum from the center to the extreme. That said, there’s nothing that suggests this is a feature of Republicanism or conservative thought. It seems whatever stress tested their faith in institutions just hit that side harder and earlier.”
For the left it’s important, then, to keep the spectrum of perspectives. And for the right, it’s important to develop more center-right media offerings to widen the spectrum.
“You can’t average out perspectives by looking at the extremes,” Caulfield said. “If you’re a person on the left or right, make sure there are some vibrant center-right materials to look at.”
Without ideologically adjacent materials, it makes it harder to share perspectives and understand one another, he said.
“We’re struggling to (share perspectives), lacking some of these ideologically adjacent materials,” he said.
That’s another reason that teaching everyone across the political spectrum to fact-check their own sources is extremely important.
“How do you make people curious without being cynical?” Caulfield asked. “By giving people the skills to figure things out themselves, we hope we can fight some of that cynicism.”
In part, we can also blame some of the polarization on the disruptive effects of the Internet. And if you look back to the invention of the printing press, you actually find some societal similarities, Caulfield added.
“The printing press benefited us as a civilization, it launched the age of science, but it also launched hundreds of years of civil wars and religious conflict,” Caulfield said. “As people adjust to new technologies, there’s often a period where the promise and the peril are pretty extreme. I don’t think we need 200 years of religious wars. But there’s not really any going back either. There’s not a no-web option. So we get to figure out how to make students better readers of the web.”