Telling fact from fiction
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.