It’s too easy to find lies, and it’s too easy to believe them. Like the yellow tabloids of the 19th century, fake news — which I define as publications pushing misleadingly slanted and outright false news — has come to taint our national discourse. Because of confirmation bias, we are inclined to accept information that supports our beliefs and reject information that goes against them.
That makes the epidemic of fake news on the left and right — but more so on the right — more pressing. An analysis from BuzzFeed News over seven weekdays found that three-right wing Facebook pages “published false or misleading information 38% of the time during the period analyzed, and three large left-wing pages did so in nearly 20% of posts.” Websites like Liberty Writers News pump out hyperbole, half-truths and lies that lead people to believe that refugees aren’t vetted before entering the United States (they are) or that members of the Democratic Party ran a child-molesting ring out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. (really?). And while some fake news websites may include disclaimers indicating that they are satire, that hardly excuses them from increasing the partisan rancor, not contributing substance to political dialogue.
Thankfully, some advertisers have refused to financially support them by blocking their ads. And Facebook has finally started to label some fake news articles as suspicious. This is a stop-gap solution because no matter what, some brands/companies will profit off fake news’ toxic content. And some people will simply read what they want to read through a narrow partisan lens.
Fake news unduly shapes our outlook on the world. Over 60 percent of Americans get their news primarily through social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Our Facebook feeds — mine included — comfort us and preach to a choir of one, but they don’t confront us with uncomfortable perspectives outside our bubble. Even though we’re affected by this epidemic, we don’t know how deeply it shapes our outlook on the world. We’re tied to our emotions, not a common, rational understanding, of what America is, especially how its story unfolds day by day. And unfortunately, if you read fake news, you’re more likely to vote, according to the internet advertising company Trade Desk.
Since America is afflicted by an emotional problem, the solution must be analytical. That is, we must start teaching students logic in elementary schools to teach them how partisan news sources are written to inspire anger and feed confirmation bias. That means teaching them the principles of logical fallacies, from hasty generalizations to ad hominem attacks. Do they know what kinds of arguments and information credible sources use? Can they tell how a piece of writing is designed to elicit certain emotions? If schools and parents start teaching these skills from a young age and reinforce them in middle and high school, they’ll be prepared to critically consume what they read, what they hear on talk radio and what they watch on TV. And these schools don’t even have to get political to teach logic. They can go at the mall and show how Abercrombie & Fitch ads make emotional appeals — damn, damn, look at that preppy gal and cute guy — to get angsty teenagers to buy into a classist lifestyle in their heavily perfumed stores. If nothing else, overburdened parents of all political stripes might receive a reprieve.
But the biggest payoff will come when these students become reasoned citizens who turn to substance, not saccharin, for information. Can they spot how websites like Breitbart appeal to patriotic nationalism to paint refugees as enemies of America? Can they understand how websites like RawStory elevate acrimonious confrontations of Republicans instead of actual dialogue? If we give young children the tools to understand how everything they read is an argument in some form, then they will demand reason when they become voting adults. Perhaps there’s a place for posts from ThinkProgress or Twitchy — it’s sometimes cathartic to pile on beleaguered politicians — but people should understand what they’re reading and why they’re reading it. We must allow emotions to affect us, not totally govern us.
The misinformation we’re seeing today may erode any common ground we have left. A public unable to identify weak arguments is at risk for demagoguery much worse than what we experience now. We must teach our children logic not just because they’re our future, but also because they’re going to need logic to fix what we did wrong today.
Wong is a Plan II and government senior from McKinney. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @calebawong.