This isn’t the first time in history that the public has been exposed to (perhaps even inundated with) fake news and alternative facts that appear to be real. However, today the negative impact of misinformation is exacerbated, both because of the volume of fake news produced and the incredible speed with which it can be viewed and shared globally through social media, a panel of SC&I faculty members said at a recent SC&I scholarship incubator at Rutgers.
The purpose of the incubator was to provide SC&I faculty with an opportunity to discuss insights their research on media, information, and communication offer about fake news and alternative facts and to explore potential ways they can collaborate to address the challenges of living in what some refer to as today’s “Post-Truth” society.
On Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at Alexander Library, 16 panelists from among SC&I’s faculty, and an additional nearly 30 SC&I faculty members in the audience, representing SC&I’s three academic departments, participated in the “SC&I Scholarship Incubator: A post-truth era of fake-alternative facts!?” The event was organized by Associate Dean for Research Mark Aakhus and Associate Dean for Programs Dafna Lemish.
Aakhus kicked-off the day-long event by describing the theme as a “question, declaration, exclamation, exasperation” about current events that has also been the case in the past. “There is something unique about this issue in our current era of networked society and the mass personalization of nearly everything we encounter,” he said and added that “clearly, this issue of post-truth/fake-alternative facts is a matter pertinent to electoral politics but it is also pertinent to most any arena of life: policy, health, environment, finances, eating, travel, consumer choice, self-help, and so on." The question Aakhus posed to the attendees was, “how does it happen in our time, what do we do in our time?”
The incubator included three sessions, and each session was followed by lively and informative Q&As between the attendees and the panelists. The first panel, titled “Journalism, News Reporting, and Truth,” was moderated by Lauren Feldman. Panelists included David Greenberg, Susan Keith, Regina Marchi and Qun Wang. (Marchi, who could not attend in person, pre-recorded her five-minute presentation for viewing during the symposium.)
Broad themes discussed in the first panel, and then further explored and elaborated upon by the SC&I faculty in the audience during the Q&A session following the panel, focused on the importance of examining fake news in the context of history. Fake news is not new, the panel said. It has been used in the past by politicians and governments as a way to influence and change behavior. Fake news is another name for “propaganda,” i.e., government-based disinformation that sometimes includes mimicking news forms in order to influence audiences.
A source of fake news in today’s world can also be text produced by content mills that are intentionally sensational but look real, and designed to lead to clicks that lead to ad revenue.
The history of lying among politicians was mentioned, and the panel said that lying among politicians probably has not increased, but the public’s eagerness to believe that politicians routinely lie has increased.
Panelists also compared the spread of “fake news” in the U.S. vs. China. In the U.S., it was pointed out, fake news is distributed by real news outlets, which does not happen in China due to censorship.
The “typology” of fake news, and how fake news enters the mainstream through late night comedy, were also themes discussed.
Faculty on the second panel spoke of the need to understand fake news as “weaponized narrative,” as well as a suggestion that scholars must work to understand fake news and alternative truths “in the light of secrecy and the hidden organizations that promote them.”
Also critical, the panel suggested, is the need to study how arguments are crafted in order to understand how people use persuasion and what statements get traction.
During the Q&A following this panel, the SC&I faculty in the audience responded with a few far-reaching questions that greatly expanded upon the panelist’s presentations. These included, Is truth a commodity? In other words, if the public pays more for doctors will they get better information about their health? And therefore, if the public pays more for facts will they get more of the truth? Is there a way to solve the fake news problem without solving the inequity of wealth distribution in this country? Wealthy individuals have greatly impacted the reporting and distribution of news to their own political ends; and Facebook and Google versus Gannet? One difference between them, a faculty member in the audience said, is that the owners of Facebook and Google are only interested in money. Community papers in past eras had different values and priorities, and unless ownership structures among companies like Google and Facebook change nothing else will.
The third panel, “Teaching, Learning and Media Literacy” was moderated by Mary Chayko. Panelists included Melissa Aronczyk, Marc Aronson, Kathryn Greene, Rebecca Reynolds and Joyce Valenza. (Aronczyk, who could not attend in person, pre-recorded her five-minute presentation for viewing during the symposium.) During the third panel, some of the over-arching ideas discussed were, the use of different points of view to get to the truth; and the idea that the media thinks of audiences as learners, not news consumers.
Another suggestion this panel made was the importance of studying the impact public relations has had on climate change reporting in order to understand how PR impacts the truth.
The third panel also explored the role of librarians as teachers and the need for librarians to show the public how to distinguish fake news from real news. The importance of media literacy in the service of public health was also discussed.
During the incubator, the panelists and audience agreed that there are many potential ways the SC&I faculty can work together to respond to and explore solutions to these issues. Some of these, the panelists suggested, could include teaching students to become more critical readers; focusing on media regulation and political reform on issues such as net neutrality; developing a mechanism to explain how news flows within the news ecosystem; and aggregating and curating solid K-12 resources.
Looking ahead, the faculty submitted suggestions to Aakhus and Lemish, proposing ways they can perhaps work together in the future to address these issues. Some of these include:
- Produce an edited book inspired by the incubator.
- Produce some kind of online proceedings based on extended abstracts of the presentations.
- Pursue funding opportunities for a common project inspired by the event.
- Develop some teaching/pedagogy innovations.
- Connect up ongoing teaching/pedagogy in clever, cross-cutting way.
- Be inspired by the event and translate some of it into their own teaching and research.
- Connect up with other faculty who had interesting ideas to see if there is some research they might do together.
- Have some more conversation with others about ideas inspired by the event.
“Highlights of the event included,” Lemish said, “The timely and provocative topic of great social political and scholarly importance; the cross-disciplinary approach – faculty from all three departments contributing diverse complementary perspectives; research and teaching feeding into each other, demonstrating their strong interdependence; and the unique format of scholarly ‘incubator’ rather than a formal symposium.”
During the next several months these proposals will be further considered and honed, and SC&I faculty will move forward to work collaboratively to address some of the most challenging and ominous issues of our time.