How to ID, overcome fake news

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This is the last of a two-part series examining what you read and hear, how you process it — and why we all need to understand more about the flood of information coming our way in this age of technology.

TODAY: Connecting the dots: Can peer reviews ever be more efficient? How can we improve our own media literacy?

Sure, tossing out phrases like “peer reviews” and “media literacy” can make you scratch your head.

This isn’t everyday conversation.

But let’s wrap it up another way: This was how Russian trolls were able to influence U.S. residents with several hundred thousand fake posts on Twitter and Facebook.

NBC News recently released 200,000 tweets known to originate with Russian accounts that imitated ordinary Americans — all intended to sow division and split the country.

“There was so much chatter on social media that, by the time anybody knew it was the Russians meddling and pretending to be American citizens, the damage had already been done,” said Josh Misner, communications professor at North Idaho College.

“Of course, nobody wants to believe they were influenced by Russian operatives pretending to be Americans. It hurts to have to admit you’re wrong, so a lot of people — even when faced with irrefutable proof — will still claim they were not influenced.”

On Friday we discussed two ways that incorrect information enters the public domain as fact: lack of reliable peer reviews and the simple truth that Americans need education in media literacy.

The peer review issue comes up when we see a study — online, most likely — that claims certain facts or statistics have been researched over time by a reputable group and important conclusions have been drawn.

As Misner pointed out, the peer review process belongs to another age. Reviewers are not paid and do the work solely to advance knowledge in their fields.

There have been experiments with paying reviewers, but that’s a bit dangerous since it puts complete power in the hands of a few editors.

For now, we just have to hope most studies are done correctly and published honestly.

THE MATTER of media literacy, though, is something we can improve by ourselves.

It’s all about learning how to understand new information, and checking on whether it’s accurate enough to take as fact.

Misner described finding media stories based on studies that were totally misleading — for instance, using “one small sliver of information that was peripheral to the study and running with it.”

As a college professor, Misner has the knowledge and resources to find proper background when he suspects a story that doesn’t feel right.

He says: “Most people would likely read an article and do one of two things: take it at face value and add it to their well of knowledge, or simply dismiss it as fake news.

“What media literacy education does is teach people how to recognize the signs of a potentially questionable story, and know when to dig further.

“Additionally, such education shows people how and where to dig for more information, as well as how to evaluate their findings.”

Misner suggests people make use of the public libraries or the library on the NIC campus.

He makes a point that if you simply take new information for granted — no matter where it originates — there’s a danger you may come to believe something that is actually false.

Or worse, that you can be manipulated.

It happens.

Just ask the Russians.


Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.


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