Sunday, November 20, 2016

Is This the Sixth Estate?

The "Fourth Estate" is an antiquated term for unofficial social and political forces, primarily the media. Use of the term recognized, over two centuries ago, that the media affect social change. But once that became clear, it became a tool of the establishment. The church, politicians, and corporations started using the media to sway the public. Then the "Fifth Estate" was born. This is alternative media that often work against newly labeled "mainstream" news sources to show a level of truth or depth not seen. We came to assume that these sources, unaffected by the man, could actually be trusted.

But the new fake news (that's not billed as satire) is a different beast. It's not from the establishment or the counter-establishment. For the most part, it seems it's from individual mischief-makers who want their time in the sun. It's not a means to show truth; it's anti-truth. It's total crap. It's not propaganda for any side so much as it's childish fibbing that plays on whatever people hate. More anger equals more clicks. Whether for ad revenue or just a base desire for popularity, it feeds the individual who can create convincing stories. It's the ultimate in individualism for a single citizen or small group of citizens to be able to influence the masses through a little creative writing.

It's not new as a concept; there have always been snake oil salesmen. When the internet first got going, I discounted so many claims from students about things like KFC raising headless chickens and people selling human meat online. It took many lessons to convince them of the inaccuracy of the sites and to be wary of what they read. And way back then - it must have been about twenty years ago - we started talking about digital literacy. Somehow it didn't take in the way it should have. And before we were on solid ground, ready and able to recognize accurate new sources for ourselves, this new breed of misinformation came out: better disguised and less outrageous. It could be true, and we're way too busy to fact check it to find out.

This reality is important enough to be discussed by Obama, but he didn't say much more than "If we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems....In an age where we have so much misinformation, and it's packaged very well....then we won't know what to fight for." Well, yup. So what do we do about it?

Some people blame Facebook for allowing fake news to be published. But Facebook isn't a peer-reviewed journal. It's supposed to be an open arena for views. (The algorithms that feed us news in a self-perpetuating bubble is a different problem that runs counter to the open forum idea.) They're not going to allow ads on sites with misleading information now, as a bit of a concession. But if we want it to stay relatively open and uncensored, then we have to be able to filter crap ourselves.

Snowden got in on the discussion suggesting Facebook shouldn't be our only news source, but Facebook isn't one source, it's a collection of news sources that varies dramatically depending on who you like and follow. Most of us already filter our own information by reading from select journalists or publications or only following people who we think will provide accurate news. A quick glance at my own Facebook feed has a Politico article followed by a New Yorker, then NYTimes, and Counter Current News, and CBC Newsand IFLScienceand Climate Reality forwarded a Guardian piece. I find Facebook, like Twitter, to be a great venue for news because I've set it up to be. I don't use it as much to connect with friends, and I'm pretty brutal about unfollowing people who post pictures of their meals. Lots of people are reading crap because they want shorter reads with more pictures and lots of drama. People want news to be entertaining.

Neil Postman
 (who was quoted at length by Chris Hedges - h/t Owen] recognized the prescience of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Huxley predicted that we've have so much information, it would render us passive, and we'd be "drowned in a sea of irrelevance." We have become the trivial culture he feared, ruined by our own desires. But Plato warned of that too, suggesting that our inability to properly measure short and long-term desires would be the end of us. We've been warned over and over for thousands of years. This is a frightening part of our own nature that seems virtually inescapable. We're largely idiots: self-centred and easily amused. I'm not sure we can be saved from ourselves.

But we can try, dammit!

Most importantly, I believe, who we think is reputable varies dramatically. What I see as the real source of the current problem it that any disagreement with outrageous claims is seen by some as a mere bias against that side rather than an argument against the claim. The most important and often the most difficult concepts to teach are "bias" and "opinion." It takes a lot of work to teach that at the grade 12 level, and it would help if it could be taught and reinforced earlier. It would help if it was a significant part of teacher's college lessons to ensure that all teachers are fluent in the terms.

I'd argue in favour of calling out bogus claims, and I do think that's important, but often it leads to bizarre accusations and hateful replies. I'm the first to jump on misattributed quotations, but moving beyond that requires a significant level of courage to be willing to stand up against an army of irrational detractors. I don't always have big enough balls for that. It would be so much easier if we all had basic skills in the dialectical method.

We have a push towards teaching critical thinking in schools, but most critical thinking discussions seem to focus on metacognition instead. It's to the point that I wonder if the board actually wants us to teach critical thought. Metacognition has us acknowledging what we're thinking as we're working through a problem. Critical thinking has us evaluating every claim and every thought we have as a response to each claim. It takes a depth of thought few want to explore. Difficult skills can be boring until we hit a baseline level of success. A few people dropped my philosophy course this term, as they always do, and I asked, "How much more time consuming is this course that people choose it to be the one to ditch?" Students answered that it's not any more time consuming at all, it's just a different level of thought that nobody's used to accessing. It's a whole new skill to question everything - in grade 12. That's more disappointing to me. I want them to question everything from kindergarten! Not just randomly arguing for the sake of being contrary, but clearly developing a line of reasoning that would have us accept or deny a claim.

I've had many arguments with educated people who get annoyed when I dismantle their arguments using the tools I learned in philosophy. That argument is a mere assertion; the other one an ad hominem; this last one an appeal to consensus....  People don't like their views questioned. They don't want to provide supports or reasoned arguments. They just want you to nod your head and admire their brilliance. I had one friend recently tell me he's "not into all that logic stuff." To me, that claim is similar to someone discounting his corrected grammar because he's not into all that grammar stuff. There are specific tools to be used when examining factual claims and arguments that we can all learn in grade school to ensure that what we're saying makes sense. But then it takes a bit more effort to develop arguments, and that's not as much fun (well, for most people).

The President of Ireland agrees:
The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world,” Mr Higgins said. “A new politics of fear, resentment and prejudice against those who are not ‘like us’ requires the capacity to critique, which an early exposure to the themes and methods of philosophy can bring.”
I'd like to live in a society full of people willing and able to thoughtfully examine ideas - their own and others'. But an educated society is difficult to placate and pacify. Beer and circuses for the masses it is!


Lorne said...

There is an interesting story on the fake news phenomenon in the Washington Post, Marie. It concerns two university graduates who are apparently making huge amounts of money peddling it:

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, those are precisely the individuals I'm on about here. The fact that individual media producers can alter reality for the world points, I believe, not to restricting social media, but to increasing the ability of citizens to learn to decipher fact from fiction. But I recognize that's asking a lot!