Remember when we used to read magazines– real, tangible, print magazines? Sometimes we’d pick them up at the dentist’s office, sometimes we’d have them delivered to our doorstep, but most of the time we’d be waiting in line at a grocery store check-out line and peruse the day’s headlines to pass the time. There were the magazines we trusted; established, long-standing names that relentlessly upheld journalistic integrity, and then there were the less revered sources; usually with sensationalized headlines (in all caps) about sex scandals and Elvis reincarnations. Some of us would disregard these superficial headlines guised as real news, some of us liked the entertainment value of the outrageous stories, some of us may have fully believed these reports.
This post isn’t really about magazines, nor is it meant to disparage those that have found themselves guiltily skimming through less reputable tabloids, what it should illustrate is that fake news is nothing new to us, and in a society of free and open thought, it has always been a personal privilege to choose what we do and do not want to believe. As long as media outlets need to vy for reader eyes and attention to survive, there will be individuals and companies that choose to forgo the rigorous craft of respectful journalism to appeal to emotional and personal belief of readers. Why, then, are we suddenly entering The Age of Post-Truth Politics? Although the term “Post-truth” has been used to describe Western Liberal democracies, and has just been deemed word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries², the phenomenon actually exists across the globe. TASCHA’s Mobile Information Literacy project provides Myanmar citizens, a population absent of an earlier “tabloid buffer” to fake news due to decades of media censorship, with the “ability to find and evaluate the quality and credibility of information obtained online, understand how to create and share online information effectively, and participate safely and securely”³.
“Post-truth” media has been around for years and spans to societies all over the world, but clearly, the quagmire of digital media is only becoming more entangled, and a little more difficult to discern than choosing Newsweek or Globe at the checkout line. As the advent of the internet has proven again and again, access and use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) doesn’t necessarily change the habits of society, but it definitely exacerbates them. According to the Pew Research Center, digital is the most popular form of news for those ages 18-49, a trend that is on the upward swing and indicates a necessity for digital media literacy for our current public and for future generations¹. In Myanmar, where mobile penetration has increased exponentially – from a mere 7% in 2014 to about 85% now – and people use “internet” and “Facebook” interchangeably, the influence of social media cannot be understated. Yet, in both cases, increased media use does not translate into literacy; a recent Stanford study showed some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between ad sponsored news stories and a real news story from a website³. Our ability to discern credible news is decreasing while our access to a growing pool of fake news is increasing. And more dangerous than economically motivated stories are those fabricated stories to incite violence and discrimination in areas already plagued for years with hate crimes.
If trends hold true for the coming years, populations around the world, including the US, will continue grow their dependency on digital news, while their ability to discern real news from fake will simultaneously decline. In a news ecosystem where made-up, fake-sourced news articles are picked up by major networks, it is important to remember sophisticated ICTs do not translate to an informed public. While access to information is a right, the ability to critically reflect on what is fact or fiction is the responsibility of the consumer.
Information literacy projects from TASCHA are rooted in the belief that in order for a public to effectively self-govern, critical thought and consideration of their government’s activities is a necessity. This is a lesson important to every free society across the globe. Social media officials can ban fake news and reconfigure algorithms to feed us more balanced articles, but we can never circumvent the time, energy, and focus that critically consuming our media requires of us. The (capital T) Truth is, somewhere between the headlines, tweets, and black-and-white facts, it’s up to all of us to create for ourselves the nuanced, complex truth that we have the right to call our own. Now, more than ever, information and media literacy is critical to the survival of a healthy democracy and popular sovereignty both in the United States and around the world.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post on how public libraries can and do play a pivotal role in ensuring an informed public capable of distinguishing fact from fiction and promoting a democratic, civil society.
Barthel, Michael, Gottfried, Jeffrey, Mitchell, Amy, & Shearer, Elisa. (July 7, 2016). The Modern News Consumer. Pew Research Center, Journalism and Media. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/
‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. (16 November, 2016). BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-37995600
Shellenbarger, Sue. (November 21, 2016). The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/most-students-dont-know-when-news-is-fake-stanford-study-finds-1479752576
Frenkel, Sheera. (November 20, 2016). This Is What Happens When Millions Of People Suddenly Get The Internet. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/sheerafrenkel/fake-news-spreads-trump-around-the-world?utm_term=.ywVpR2Yoq#.hcgLzKRM7