Telling fact from fic­tion

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc — Twit­ter: @ Wanger­sky.

Ev­ery now and then, you hear some­one in the busi­ness com­mu­nity ar­gu­ing that stu­dents in sec­ondary school need to learn fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy. Just like they need to know how to read, the ar­gu­ment goes, they also need to un­der­stand ba­sic fi­nan­cial con­cepts, ev­ery­thing from how com­pound in­ter­est works to how debt is struc­tured. And that’s a fine idea. But while we’re talk­ing about things chil­dren are go­ing to need to know in the fu­ture, here’s another kind of teach­ing that prob­a­bly should be re­quired: let’s start teach­ing our kids a healthy skep­ti­cism about what’s on the In­ter­net, and let’s show them the dif­fer­ence be­tween what’s a le­git­i­mate source of in­for­ma­tion, and what’s click­bait or fake­bait.

Be­cause it’s clear, in is­sues as di­verse as the on­go­ing de­bate about set­tling refugees from the Syr­ian war to the Amer­i­can elec­tion, that even their par­ents are hav­ing a hard time rec­og­niz­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween In­ter­net fact and In­ter­net fic­tion.

Just last week, Buz­zfeed had a fas­ci­nat­ing story about Mace­do­nian teens mak­ing ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars from pro-Trump web­sites. The on­line news agency found more than 100 pro-Trump web­sites op­er­at­ing out of the town of Ve­les: the sites re­cy­cle any anti-Clin­ton tid­bit they can find, repack­age them with out­ra­geous head­lines, and share them across Face­book, trolling for cus­tomers ea­ger to be­lieve the head­lines and click on the sites. Google AdSense does the rest, pay­ing the teens for the eyes they drag to their sites.

It’s un­der­stand­able, to a point. What peo­ple be­lieve seems to have more to do with what they want to be­lieve than any­thing else. If they find some­thing that sup­ports what they be­lieve any­way, their abil­ity to ask hard ques­tions about the prove­nance of the lat­est ex­posé goes out the win­dow.

That’s par­tic­u­larly a prob­lem as more and more of our ev­ery­day in­for­ma­tion comes from the In­ter­net. From re­set­ting your mi­crowave from “demo mode” — just had to do that, thanks, time change — to ask­ing about what to do when your smart­phone gets wet, we go dig­i­tal for an­swers. And no, the pop­corn set­ting on your mi­crowave will not dry out your smart phone, no mat­ter how of­ten that claim is made on the web. Nor does an email claim­ing to be from your bank need to be an­swered with all your bank­ing de­tails, even though that still hap­pens al­most daily.

Prob­lem is, it’s a world of ma­nip­u­la­tion, on ev­ery side, pro-refugee or anti-refugee, Repub­li­can or Demo­crat, Tory or Lib­eral or even NDP. The abil­ity to spon­ta­neously and ef­fec­tively in­vent news — all you need is a mod­er­ate level of com­puter skill — means there are fewer and fewer gate­keep­ers over what’s fact, what’s opin­ion and what’s out­right false.

Heck, there are whole web­sites like Snopes de­voted to de­bunk­ing In­ter­net fraud — and they’re go­ing full out, and even hir­ing.

In the world of my so­cial me­dia net­work, not a week goes by with­out an out­raged post­ing from some­one cit­ing a spoof site as if it was fact.

Not a week goes by with­out some­one post­ing a news story that, when you look closely, is sev­eral years old.

And not a week goes by with­out some­one post­ing — per­haps with ev­ery best in­ten­tion — “news” that is com­pletely man­u­fac­tured.

Monday, Twit­ter was try­ing to deal with faked Tweets sug­gest­ing Amer­i­cans could vote by text or that vot­ing hours had been ex­tended into Wed­nes­day — both com­pletely false, and in­tended to, to put it bluntly, steal some­one’s abil­ity to cast their vote.

Both sides in the Amer­i­can elec­tion have leapt into the fray with spin, mis­state­ments and down­right gromper lies — and those lies have been hap­pily ex­panded and shared and echoed to the point that we now have two sides in an elec­tion that only be­lieve the sounds of their own group’s voices.

Our kids are head­ing into that morass of fak­ery with an ev­ery-greater dig­i­tal de­pen­dency.

And even the in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way needs a map.

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