Fake News is Old News
While the phenomenon of Fake News screamed into headlines with the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria shooting, media literacy has been around as long as people have been constructing adolescence as distinct from adulthood. Certainly media literacy started with fears of people (often positioned as poorer, younger, or slower) being duped into believing whatever they were being told or sold (the protectionist stance). But for ethnographers of education and youth culture like Jo Ellen Fisherkeller (author of Growing Up with Television), media literacy needs to be more and can be problematic. Their work meets youth where they are; acknowledging the skills and positive (including pleasurable) relationships people young and old construct with media texts (the ethnographic stance). Some critical educators work to wed these stances together with an approach to media in the classroom that balances pleasure with critique and deconstruction of media as both a text and a corporate institution (the critical pedagogy stance).
So What is Fake News?
Many have been quick to blame social media sites (like Facebook where the Pizza-Gate Conspiracy story and many others circulated during the 2016 election) and the open web for the proliferation, circulation, and ubiquity of news about fabricated events. Stories like this one in the New York Times, explain how anyone (like Cameron Harris) can sit down, write, and publish widely read tales (including photographs) of happenings that never transpired.
But reporters at Vox point out that, while social media may be one place Fake News grows legs, real news outlets are heavily implicated in creating, what they dub, “false equivalence” between the two candidates and the scandals surrounding their campaigns. In this instance, false equivalence veiled what was at stake for the majority of the voting population. They argue in favor of a closer look at the ways real news works too.
This means we have to vet the texts we read, but we’ve also got to learn about the ways all texts get constructed and disseminated.
So How do I Get Started?
Reading any text (nursery rhyme, cereal box, mother’s day card, online news story, work of art, picture book, science textbook, etc.) with these questions from Project Look Sharp via Common Sense Media is one way to start:
- Who made this?
- Who is the target audience?
- Who paid for this? Or, who gets paid if you click on this?
- Who might benefit or be harmed by this message?
- What is left out of this message that might be important?
- Is this credible (and what makes you think that)?
Questions like these layer classic questions about: Media Mode Audience Purpose and Situation (that make rhetorical analysis accessible to K-12 students) with critical questions about industry, representation, impact, and authority. A video like Hate Machine is another way to kick start the conversation about text construction and dissemination:
Teachers in middle and high school classrooms might find this 10 question checklist for Fake News Detection from the News Literacy Project a quick place to start. It begins asking readers to gauge their emotional investment in the truth of their reading, includes online activities like reverse image searches, and touches on the ways bots can dominate online forums.
What Should I Be Ready for?
When people start to talk about harm and textual authority, the conversation can get sticky; particularly for people from marginalized or underrepresented populations. Marginalized voices are the voices rendered invisible, demonized, and mis-represented in much of mainstream media. In “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” media scholar danah boyd outlines some of the questions critical, inclusive, responsive, anti-racist, allied educators need to be asking along the way. She reminds us about the limits of medical “science.” She reminds us of the necessity for information and expertise if we are to live in a functioning democracy that promotes equity and social justice. She reminds us of the need to reimagine traditional education practices:
“We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted. We also cannot simply assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us, whether they be traditional news media or social media. We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines. This won’t be easy or quick, but if we want to address issues like propaganda, hate speech, fake news, and biased content, we need to focus on the underlying issues at play. No simple band-aid will work.”
One of the quickest ways to shake things up is to invite youth to investigate their own questions, make their own media, and share that media with audiences beyond the classroom. The Rock Your World project based curriculum by Creative Visions is a free online resource for lesson plans AND a showcase for youth social issue action projects. Lessons take youth through the process of identifying an issue of personal and social importance, informing themselves, and selecting a format for composing a persuasive text (letter, campaign, song, film). The curriculum’s lessons are open enough for any teacher to modify, include links to alignment with Common Core State Standards, and curated resources like mentor texts and places for students to publish and disseminate their finished work widely.
Look to future posts for tips and questions to consider as youth publish their work beyond the classroom and engage in critical inquiry projects.
I would like to thank Ginger Gannaway for help curating some of the above resources.