Professors discuss truth and news Twitter
By Bryan Hay
The Lafayette campus has been buzzing with conversations about finding our way in the post-truth era and how partisan media appeal to emotions and personal beliefs to influence public opinion.
It takes energy and ambition to cut through a thick, noisy jungle of filter bubbles, bots, partisan journalism, and social media and clear a pathway to uncover balanced sources of information.
Here’s what a panel of faculty members had to say about truth in news from their disciplinary perspectives during a lunchtime session sponsored by Lafayette Libraries.
Joe Shieber, associate professor, philosophy
Shieber discussed the possibility of attempting to deal with fake news by creating a checklist (will that link take you to a credible newspaper or academic publisher?) to help sift good information from bad and surrounding yourself with people who are willing to question your own assumptions about credible sources.
However, he questioned whether individual solutions like checklists will be effective, for two reasons.
First, “people tend to accept what they have read without questioning it,” he said. “We’re not very good at challenging ourselves; we want to keep our own set of beliefs.”
Second, even bad information can get planted in good sources, Shieber said, recalling how Judith Miller trusted inaccurate information from the U.S. government in her New York Times series about Iraq’s capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction.
A better solution, according to Shieber, would be to strengthen the institutions that work as filters for information—like libraries, newspapers, and colleges.
Worried that social institutions that rose in the 19th century and were nurtured in the 20th century are losing support in the 21st century, Shieber said that if newspapers, libraries, and academia are replaced, the onus will fall on media consumers to filter information.
Katherine Groo, assistant professor, film and media studies
It’s challenging to sort through the proliferation of digital information that’s vying for our attention, but Groo said suspicious urls and digital texts with all caps or nonstandard punctuation are red flags that you’re about to be pulled into a murky source of misinformation.
She said there are tools that can help consumers determine the credibility of information, including Botometer, TwitterAudit, and B.S. Detector. However, these tools aren’t exactly the ones that contemporary undergraduates need.
“Many of us, including our students, are extremely media literate,” Groo said.
She noted that, according to preliminary research, visitors to fake news sites tend to be older and less comfortable with technology. By contrast, college students have such a comfortable relationship with the digital world that they need to de-familiarize themselves, step back, and learn to analyze information more closely.
Jonathan Dahl, visiting assistant professor, computer science
Social media, where 60 percent of Americans get their news, works constantly to keep us entertained and stimulated.
“Once people are exposed to an idea, the more likely they are to consider it, no matter how crazy,” Dahl said. “Social media wants to keep you entertained longer, Facebook is trying to make us happy. That’s what we’re up against.”
Insidious bots, which can now be purchased, are sheep and can “promote whatever you want,” he said, and start a controversy fomented by con artists, hate groups, and hostile foreign powers.
“You can make up an algorithm for whatever you want and convince people of whatever you want,” Dahl said, adding that the path to change from the user’s perspective is unclear.
Il Hyun Cho, assistant professor, government and law and Asian studies
From a global perspective, Cho said, truth is politically contested over a range of issues, including threat perception, alliance relations, and climate change.
Despite U.S. perception of North Korea as a global rogue, the progressive governments in South Korea have reached out to Pyongyang for inter-Korean relations and regional stability. As part of this effort, the two Koreas agreed to have a joint women’s ice hockey team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
American allies such as Pakistan and Turkey are also at loggerheads with the United States over the Taliban and Kurdish forces in Syria, prompting suspension of U.S. military aid to Islamabad and causing tension between Washington and Ankara, two NATO allies.
More broadly, varied levels of national consensus and political leadership with regard to climate change shape radically different national responses. With polarized views of global warming across the political spectrum, the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, while Germany and China are expanding their roles in coping with climate change.