After the results of the 2016 USA Presidential Elections, there was been microscopic analysis of ‘news stories’ that engulfed social media, with accusations that the narrative shared on platforms like Facebook and Twitter swayed voters one way or the other. Likewise, in the UK, claims that groups representing a socialist (or right-wing) viewpoint gathered momentum with social media users in helping to elect an opposition leader who, it was deemed, would keep the current government in power for longer due to the perception that was portrayed that the leader would never win a general election.
Both the highlighted campaigns have fallen under considerable scrutiny, as the rise in popularity of social media platforms is now the everyday source for many of the population who appear to be turning their backs on the ‘traditional’ news sources, namely the newspapers and television and radio. Certainly, it is easier for individuals to set up ‘fake’ news websites, create Facebook pages, and look popular by purchasing Twitter followers in a bid to make potential followers feel that they are joining a crowd. Yet claims that this new era of online ‘fake news’ needs to be taken with caution, as traditional news sources are, by a long way, not always objective and accurate in their news reporting.
So, what of the younger generation growing up surrounded by social media platforms, providing viewpoints, news and information that can spark dangerous, narrow, and one-sided opinions that cause division in their lives and society? More crucially, what role do education and the schooling system have in ensuring that narrow viewpoints are challenged, and individuals know that they can be subject to propaganda from a variety of sources?
Let’s face it, it doesn’t require a lot of cunning or skill to set up a fake news website or Facebook page. Indeed, it’s now relatively easy to create a YouTube channel that attracts more viewers than Poldark enjoys when removing his shirt on a Sunday evening. Shortly after the USA 2016 Presidential results, Channel 4 News managed to track down a collection of students in Macedonia who had created fake news websites and Facebook pages, reaching hundreds of thousands of views on disparaging stories about both candidates. There’s no way of saying that these stories tipped the balance of the elections one way or the other, but these false narratives played into the psyche of a sceptical population who were prepared to give the articles credence and attention.
We must not kid ourselves into thinking that recent fake news stories are only a contemporary problem. Traditional media sources are also guilty of publishing unchecked and untrue stories across the globe, as their backers and own interests define the accuracy of a report. In fact, back in the 1570s, when the potato was brought over to Europe, Casper Bahhin – a Swiss botanist – named the vegetable ‘Solanum tuberosum esculentum’, suggesting that they caused flatulence, lust and leprosy, resulting in many Europeans refusing to eat potatoes, even in desperate times of famine.
More recently, famous cases include various stories in national newspapers, on television news, and on the radio. It is easy and lazy journalism that relies on a source without checking the full facts, or listening to the other side of the story, with the aim of ratings, sales or advertising. Just because a ‘news story’ is published on a website, newspaper, or any other media does not mean that it is objective, true, and offers all sides of the story.
The difference is that, for many youngsters, these forms of news would have only been given attention by a minority, whereas social media platforms are domains inhabited by this generation. The challenge for them is to be given skills that help them discern what they are reading and to look at a report with a hint of cynicism and objectivity. No longer can individuals be told what to think and to whom to listen. The role of schools and teachers in helping students to read through online or newspaper articles with a sceptical eye is critical. Writers use a range of tactics to create their stories, the use of language manipulation being enough to fool many and being relevant to traditional and modern means of media. We all know to take stories printed in various newspapers with a pinch of salt, but yet they are still sold daily in their thousands. The problem for schools and teachers is fitting critical skills into packed school days, but it is important that we have a population that does not tolerate hate speech, challenges dangerous views, and understands the background when articles are published on any form of media.
This was a UKEdChat Featured Article first published in the January 2017 Edition of UKEdMagazine
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