A version of this post appeared in the New York Times Magazine, 14 May, 2017.
Farhad Manjoo’s recent New York Times Magazine cover story, Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug? spends most of its time debating whether fake news should be fixed by building better algorithms, or by adding editorial oversight to what goes viral on The Social Network. Strangely absent from the discussion is the possibility that we, as information consumers, could play a role.
Fake news spreads because users lack the information skills to sort fact from fiction—largely because we do not teach information literacy consistently at any stage of a person’s education. Credo conducted a survey of college students and faculty, and found that while a majority of students express confidence in their ability to evaluate sources, only 16% of faculty agree. Despite the severity of this problem, over 1/3 of faculty are not even aware of formal information literacy being offered at their institution. 74% of students report receiving some kind of instruction on how to use library resources, however these vary from department to department, often requiring students to opt themselves into a workshop, or faculty members to invite a librarian into the course.
The infrastructure to fix what’s broken lies not in Facebook’s News Feed team, but in our educational system: when we teach people to be smart news consumers, the algorithm of any one social media app becomes secondary to the truth itself. Mark Zuckerberg speaks frequently about building connections for a better global society, but his vision loses its luster if those connections are nothing more than a conduit to spread falsehoods and exacerbate existing conflicts.
Empowering individuals amid this global web to discern fact from fiction is a stronger bulwark against viral misinformation. Looking to algorithms or editors as the sole solution to fake news means taking for granted that people are passive receptors of whatever scrolls down their screen. To enact real change, we have to speak up and make information literacy a bigger part of the conversation.
See Mike’s comments published in the New York Times Magazine here.