The recent media avalanche of fake news and news misinformation has contributed to a malaise among progressive citizens. Why have immoral lies morphed into fake news, and why is the U.S. population less attentive to social media news sources than traditional print journalism?
Media influence — from both traditional and 21st century sources — should be worrisome to all people who value the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging to the overall social good, and we need to gain strategies to see the lies within the style if we’re going to be able to make informed decisions about the world around us.
Such truth-seeking is a collective responsibility. If too many of us fail to assume our parts in becoming better at weeding out the lies from the evidence, we become a society that is easily distracted and, ultimately, damaged by lies.
The most powerful way to seek truth from sources that offer faulty logic and interpretation is to have the capacity to think about our own thinking. Thinking about thinking is a really important cognitive structure to be able to make deep meaning in a symbol-saturated contemporary world.
We need to synthesize our own experiences, identify suppositions, trace inferential clues, and step back to consider multiple interpretations. Reflection on assumptions, stereotypes, and other embedded notions before, during, and after media immersion helps us to process whether or not a source is drawing appropriate conclusions based on evidential reasoning.
#1. Recognize participatory culture for its multiple viewpoints and interpretations
As progressives, we look to people who don’t support inclusiveness and want to shake them. We want to ask, If you have potential to navigate the world with the touch of a button, why don’t you use the available technology to learn about worlds and people who do not look like you, think like you, or act like you? Why are people who don’t share your culture threatening?
Participatory culture has created a shift in what today stands as news. We are now literate with a mixture of print and digital texts. And no longer are we limited to a very small core of media experts as the sole sources of reason in society. Today, social media has introduced an evolution from consumer to producer, which can be really good in many ways. Individual expression through blog posts, comments, reviews, fan fiction, and personal YouTube channels, among other web 2.0 possibilities, has allowed many people to become composers. Citizens who have voice can transform society through infusing multiple ways of looking at the world into our collective conversation. That, in turn, spurs more community involvement.
Individual composers interpret the world. Interpretation is very different than presenting facts and evidence from research as reality. That’s where social media has failed our democracy. As a result, we need to develop contexts to extract ourselves temporarily but frequently to create the space for critical consciousness to take root.
#2. Create a call to action through critical consciousness to devalue fake news
As progressives, we know and accept the risks that accompany the search for answers to hard questions. As we promote environmental justice, we’re asking others who may be really comfortable with their place and position in a fossil-fuel based society to step sideways a bit and to discard some crucial elements of their identities in the process of saving the planet. Relinquishing power is contrary to every primal human motivation. But the intrinsic joy that comes from participating in an egalitarian society that celebrates the natural world is the reward of these power shifts, and the necessary movement toward significant carbon reduction absolutely involves changes in who owns and controls energy sources, among many other variables.
Critical consciousness is the ability to perceive social, political, and economic oppression and to take action against the oppressive elements of society. Engaged and critically aware people can become change agents for the environmental justice movement. When we actively insist on the varied process of thinking to interrogate and know our world, media experiences change. No longer is a headline so readily taken at face value. Reading, knowing, learning, and thinking constantly feed into each other. By using our own voices as we reflect, we more consciously recognize our existing identities and our relationships to media channels.
Many media channels reject the scientific evidence that points to climate change. We need to accommodate the habit of drawing upon our own experiences, knowing, and observing against the backdrop of powerful media persuasion. The media offers us information about climate change but doesn’t ask us to respond to that information through judgment. People should make the time to think critically about what constitute news and should extend the idea of embedded biases in all media texts. To critically understand and evaluate the media, we need to develop a complex attitude of observing media contents and objects from a distance, accepting that we derive a great deal of pleasure from media texts.
#3. Distance yourself from design and emotional appeal in media messages
Don’t you choose online news sites as much for their style and pop as for their news info? Doesn’t a visually appealing balance of color, fonts, pictures, graphics, complexity, usability, clarity, and consistency make a difference in how frequently you visit a site? Sometimes called “the pleasure principle,” our desire to feel good when visiting online news sources is part of an instinct of seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain in order to satisfy our psychological needs. Today’s media is designed to appeal to immediate experience, personal interests, and enjoyment. According to Renee Hobbs at URI’s Media Education Lab, the media answers our need to be pleased and creates audiences that are in a “mental state of perpetual distractedness or fertilizing an ever-growing thirst for the novel, the profane, and the shocking” (Hobbs, 2016, 12).
Because the media are embedded with persuasion as well as style choices that capture and hold our attention, their symbol systems reflect and shape the function of audience perception. Much media dissemination is tied up in the transfer of culture, one generation to the next. A certain sociology of the emotions applies to our media consumption, and media composers draw out our emotions of fear, vulnerability, and anxiety to persuade us to think and behave in particular ways.
That means when we hear climate deniers and others who rouse emotions through site design and embedded online news messages, we need to consciously remove ourselves from the whirlwind. By integrating critical analysis and lived media experience, we can investigate the affective/ pleasurable side of media consumption and, at the same time, learn how to question it. Hobbs argues, “Careful, active interpretation of the representations we create and the ones that circulate among our peers, families, and communities is essential for living an informed and reflective life”(12).
Reflexivity is a reaction to the demands and influences exerted by cultural spaces and one’s own practices within those fields. We can reflect on our own favorite media narratives and promote thinking about our own thinking when we consider which media ideas capture our imaginations and why.
We can remember that the most attractive news item tends to win over an audience, regardless of how much factual evidence supports the news premise. Audiences don’t seem to have a built-in, practical ability to comprehend and negotiate cultural fields, so people respond to persuasion without a conscious understanding of a media formula of persuasion.
Contemporary news, for the most part, is entertainment, even when about a topic as important as climate change.
Accessing information today is a two step process. Yes, we can immerse ourselves within the visceral enjoyment that accompanies online news. But we also have to step back and gain critical distance, so we can access new ways of relating to one another through social media’s opportunities for sharing, swapping ideas, and collaborating.
#4. Acknowledge media information as a capitalist venture that feeds fake news
We must remember how Foucault asserted that knowledge is constructed, and we need to understand the systems that produce it. Media are owned by very large corporations, and corporations have a mission to create profits for their shareholders. The media is a culture industry and an instrumental part of our contemporary capitalist society. Like the writers, producers, and actors in a play, media composers have a special point of view they wish to convey that correlates with success measured by clicks, which translate into advertiser endorsements.
“Media representations do not merely document experience; they actually create cultural practices and ways of thinking,” Hobbs says (13). Each media platform, whether it’s on the progressive side, like The Nation, Now with Bill Moyers, Salon, or the conservative side, like Fox News, The Drudge Report, or Breitbart, generally is accompanied by having a financial interest in the matter. Polished media propaganda encourages audiences to acquire and use social media tools but rarely acknowledge media’s insistent adherence to a consumer culture as normal and its impact on lifestyles, social norms, and values. Nor do they represent climate change denial as a function of fossil-fuel profit motivations.
The media induce a consent that implies a capitalist society is the best and only method of life and governance. Since we know that fake news drives revenue through generating clicks, we have to develop an ability to read and critique media news texts of all kinds — progressive and conservation and all others between — so that we gain an ability to read and critique media texts from the standpoint of how they reproduce, contest, or are contradictory and ambiguous to the dominant capitalist institutions of power.
Let’s accept that all media is positioned from particular points of view, and most media channels exist as a business venture rather than as personal reflections shared with a broad and anonymous audience or for altruism strictly. When we do so, we can gain tools to challenge those who fail to recognize the threat of climate change to our planet.
#5. Undo our fixed belief systems through cross-checking possible fake news
Importantly, we need to be forthright about the positions we hold in relation to the topics being discussed in the media. Hobbs suggests that we can defamiliarize the media by treating them as objects of study and using critical distance to at them rather than through them. To do so, we need to be even more critical of news that matches our views. We want to believe all stories we hear from a progressive point of view are factually accurate. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “People prefer to believe what they prefer to be true.” But we must slow down, as we, like all media consumers, tend to believe stories representing our own points of view a little too easily. It’s easier to believe what we want to believe.
Let’s make a pact to be on guard by being aware of our biases.
- We’ll be willing to listen and read reports from various, differing news organizations.
- We’ll use our own background information as a counterbalance to news, and keep accommodating more background knowledge by reading, doing research, and sharing ideas. Being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in our minds, and epistemological work requires constant updating and revision.
- Instead of disengaging our critical faculties when we really want something to be true or false, we’ll step back and notice how patterns of thinking and social relationships are structured to celebrate some cultural ideas and restrict or limit thinking about others.
- We’ll seek multiple points of view so that, in our age of abundance when it comes to sources of information, we won’t be lured into fake impartiality.
- When we confront possibly specious news, we’ll commit to locating four different perspectives, instead opting for the ideological safe spaces of curated, online experiences like Facebook, Twitter, and even news platforms like Flipboard.
- Check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes.
- Check the site address to make sure it uses a credible domain such as .com, .org, or .edu. Suspect others.
And, no matter how difficult or dry it is, we’ll commit to consuming better quality news: news that is supported by facts in context. Pollsters tend to cite how U.S. respondents have little confidence in news media to report news fully, accurately, and fairly. Let’s seek out sources in which we have confidence through the evidence they cite.
The incidence of fake news in a society is inversely proportional to the real education of its citizens. We can take our knowledge of how the media persuades us to think about progressive issues like climate change and share our strategies with others to illuminate bias, factual evidence, and research. We can point to actual life situations like food poverty and diminishing polar bear habitat in relation to wider historical and ideological issues.
Anytime we hesitate to speak out about news we know to be false, we contribute to its spread. That’s called “complicity.” Our reluctance to challenge posted information from our social networks due to a hesitancy to offend or embarrass others does perpetuate fake news’ continued impact and does assist with its reproduction across multiple media channels.
Critical thinking is an awareness of a set of interrelated questions, the ability to ask and answer these questions at appropriate times, and the desire to actively use questions to solve social problems. Promoting reflection in relation to particular and situated media texts is absolutely necessary in an era in which a propensity to disseminate false research and misinformation can affect the safety and equality of our U.S. and global citizenry. Critical thinking about media texts is an important step toward saving our planet.
Hobbs, Renee. (2016). Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative. Temple University Press.
Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn via Foter.com / CC BY