The world seemed surprised that Cambridge Analytica leveraged fake news to sway the Brexit referendum and the U.S. federal election in 2016.
Should it have been a surprise, though?
Society has focused so much on funding professional degree programs that it’s lost its focus on two crucial things: critical thinking and information literacy. The two go hand in hand and they’re fundamental in knowing how to spot fake news—and no, holding a bachelor’s degree in any field does not automatically mean that someone thinks critically. There is also a wide range of applications for critical thought in all kinds of contexts, but not that many teach students how to evaluate information sources to the point of making intuition.
And that’s the issue.
There are some basic signals you can pick up on if you’re trained to recognize them:
- Flawed argumentation (e.g. correlation vs. causation)
- The quality of informational sources
- Reframing facts selectively
- Sensational headlines
- Understanding what constitutes propaganda
- Understanding the difference between news and satire (yes, some people thought The Colbert Report was real)
History students know fake news isn’t new
Those who paid attention in class know the difference, anyway. History is full of fake news. It’s called propaganda, and every kind of political leader you can think of has leveraged it to gain support.
Here’s a small list off the top of my head:
- Otto von Bismarck unified Germany by creating an enemy out of France under dubious pretenses (in part).
- Benito Mussolini—a journalist by trade—made a public spectacle of invading Ethiopia to prove to his Italian constituents how “strong” his military was.
- North Korea. Enough said.
- The Entente portrayed the Triple Alliance’s soldiers as animals (sometimes literally) in order to convince people to sign up for the First World War.
- Some Protestant leaders of the 16th century created posters and pamphlets about “demon sightings” around Rome to discredit the the Pope.
- Gaius Julius Caesar convinced his Roman army to march on Rome itself by painting the Senate as corrupt bureaucrats who accused his soldiers of being enemies of the state.
- “Yellow journalism” is thought to have contributed toward public support for the Spanish-American War (if not a direct influence on the decision to go to war).
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and anyone who paid attention in history class knows it. It’s not just going to be a passing fad, either. It has become a staple tool of political propaganda and it’s a thriving business model. The Internet definitely made fake news worse, but it didn’t spawn fake news by any stretch.
Why don’t all graduates know how to spot fake news?
That’s a good question. The United States has a more educated population today than at any previous point in history, so you’d think that the wider population would be able to discern real news from fake news. Around 5% of the American population held a bachelor’s degree in 1940, and around 33% of the population held a bachelor’s degree in 2015. That’s a huge increase.
If society is better-educated than ever before, why can’t huge swathes of society tell real news from fake news? That’s a big question calling for a multi-faceted answer, and it would be unrealistic to tackle all of that right here. Let’s look at it through an institutional lens for a moment instead (leaving social media and DIY op-ed publishing for another day).
Aside from the proliferation of online publications and political polarization (both incredibly important in their own right), the answer might lie in the type of critical thinking being taught today, by the numbers. There are a lot of degrees out there with reputations for being more challenging than history or journalism: economics, engineering, medicine, and computer sciences all require intelligence and hard work. Yet they don’t necessarily teach people to scrutinize and evaluate sources of information on a regular basis, let alone with a with an academic methodology.
Information literacy isn’t the most profitable kind of critical thinking, but it’s important.
It’s no secret that the liberal arts and humanities have been given the short end of the stick for funding over the last 20+ years. People point to these programs as cautionary tales: “Don’t get a history degree unless you want to serve coffee at Starbucks.” Many seem to believe that STEM fields or professional fields offer better employment prospects—and you can see it in the enrollment data. While history, journalism, and the social sciences only grew a little bit in total between 1970 and 2015, professional degrees like business and healthcare skyrocketed.
Other fields grew steadily too, but these are the heavy hitters of professional degree enrollment. Just take a look at how these enrollment numbers look next to the growth of all program enrollments in the same time period (1970-2015).
That dark blue line at the top is total enrollment. See how it changes trajectory after 2000? That’s the proliferation of all bachelor program enrollments across all disciplines. Yet history and the social sciences remained at the same level after 45 years. Journalism saw solid growth, but it started with such a small number of enrollments in the first place that it still ended up with the lowest amount of enrollments out of all 4 programs surveyed here.
What does this mean? It suggests that that the handful of disciplines focusing on information literacy and critical thinking about sources shrank as a total per cent all bachelor degree program enrollments in the United States between 1970 and 2015. In other words, the already modest number of programs training students to spot fake news didn’t proliferate, while most other programs did. There could be a correlation to the population not knowing how to spot fake news, even though the United States has more bachelor degree holders than ever before.
The raw number of undergraduates entering bachelor programs that focus on information literacy grew by a little bit (thanks only to journalism and communication studies), but their “market share” of all bachelor enrollment shrank drastically over this 45-year period because everything else grew even more.
Good news: they still teach critical thinking like they used to
My own alma mater’s enrollment in history has dropped 25% over the last several years, matching America’s national average for declining humanities enrollment very closely. And who could blame Millennials and Gen Z for ditching history and English programs in favor of engineering, business, computer sciences? They came of age during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and they want the most-high-value jobs they can get their hands on.
However, following the how-soon-does-it-get-me-a-job approach to education has consequences. We’ve seen the effects after nearly half a century of shrinking representation in the liberal arts and humanities:
- Britain voted on Brexit before it knew the facts, then searched for “what is the EU” the next day more than any other day in history.
- America’s 2016 election was swayed by fake news of the Russian persuasion, among others. The FBI even has wanted posters about it.
- Some people out there seem to believe that the Earth is flat or that vaccines cause unrelated medical conditions, despite all evidence suggesting otherwise.
- The President of the United States tried to accuse political rivals of murdering a sex-trafficking billionaire being held in police custody.
That inability to separate fact from fiction carries some pretty serious implications for the general population.
Thankfully, the solution isn’t just available–it’s a century old, and it’s been practiced in academic circles for a long time. Spotting fake news is a function of information literacy, one of the most coveted skills that employers want, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. And history programs already teach students how to scrutinize fake news with information literacy, but we’ll get to that shortly.
The Internet has democratized “news” beyond what anyone imagined before the year 2000. It has enabled fake news to spread, and it’s entirely possible that the population might have been even more susceptible to fake news if education hadn’t proliferated at the same time. But the Internet is here to stay and democracy doesn’t uphold itself.
You can’t get rid of fake news, but you can teach people how to spot it.
Drum roll, please…
How to spot fake news
History classes already teach students the skills needed to spot fake news in second, third, and fourth years. Seriously—it’s called “historiography.” All students practice it in writing essays so that they can whittle away poor arguments, propaganda, and ulterior motivations to get closer to the most likely explanation for historical events and the most thoughtful analyses. They dress down historical sources and then synthesize whatever’s left to create an informed and reasoned assessment. It’s just part of the discipline.
It trains you to ask (and answer) all of these things when reading something:
- What is the author’s background and potential motivation in relation to what you’re reading?
- What sources does the author use? How many?
- Do the sources actually say what the author claims? Are they even credible?
- Does the author have any blind spots? Can those blind spots exist in their cultural, political, or religious views?
- Is the author or publisher making money with this piece?
- Is this a genuine discussion, or an entertaining rant?
- Does the author seem heated or emotional about the topic?
Every argument made by every author featured in every essay goes through that vetting process (if the student does the work… but that’s another discussion altogether). That’s what makes history students some of the best-prepared graduates on the market to spot fake news. It’s part of the same skill set that makes history majors suited particularly well for graduate programs in law and journalism, too. They’ve been practicing this kind of information literacy for 3-4 years before entering the job market.
A special shout-out should go to majors in philosophy and journalism programs, too. Journalism is obviously the most purpose-built program to spot fake news, and philosophy majors are trained to identify argumentative flaws before their first mid-term exam. That’s the kind of skill set at the intersection of critical thought and information literacy that equips someone to grapple with fake news.
Beware: fake news follows a business model
As a digital marketer, I am more qualified than most people out there to tell you that fake news isn’t just about ideology or tribal psychology. It’s a business.
Fake news is essentially a bad strain of publishing. Website owners earn money by hosting ads on their website. The fake news stories—the content—brings traffic to that website. Visitors see the ads and might even click on them—that’s where they make their money.
Ad revenue usually works in one of two ways:
- Cost per click (CPC)
- Cost per 1,000 impressions (CPM, “M” being the Latin numeral for “1,000)
They generate news stories and attract people to their websites with those stories to generate advertising revenue. In 2016—the year of Brexit and the U.S. federal election—Facebook offered incredibly cheap traffic. It allowed all manner of website publishers to pay for abundances of cheap traffic on Facebook, bring that traffic to their websites, and then generate revenue from advertising revenue earned on ads that they hosted.
They’d make a profit on the difference between the cost of the Facebook traffic and the revenue from hosting their own ads.
Thankfully, it’s harder to do that these days. Still possible, but harder to do. In 2017 Facebook raised the cost of its advertising significantly. Companies that relied too heavily on cheap Facebook traffic took massive hits, and the Facebook algorithm change actually caused some of them to go under completely.
Plenty of websites still do it today, but it’s harder to pull off than in 2016. This is also just the digital model of fake news. There’s plenty out there on television, but I’m not sure if the world is ready for that discussion yet.
Where you can fact-check online content
If you’re not familiar enough with a given topic to suss out clues in what you suspect might be a fake news story, then you can check out these sources to help you out.
Together, all of those should help you make heads and tails of the news pieces you find online. Yes, you should cross-reference the fact-checking websites as well to spot inconsistencies.
So, what do you do with a history degree? You just learn how to spot fake news, keep publishers accountable, and uphold democratic integrity, I guess. No big deal.