Written by Perrin Grauer, Published by The Star Vancouver

September 13, 2018

Education is our best weapon against fake news, says information expert

VANCOUVER—Fake news comes in many forms, from narrative to imagery to data and statistics, and combating its power and pervasiveness has become a daily chore for anyone with access to the internet.

The misinformation phenomenon, however, is neither new nor surprising, says Jevin West, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Information School.

“Most people, whether they’re young, old, from left-leaning politics or right-leaning politics, I think everyone knows … that (some of their) information is unreliable and insincere, and I think people are looking for ways to combat that,” West said, speaking to StarMetro from Washington a day ahead of his Thursday appearance at Simon Fraser University’s presidential colloquium on making knowledge public.

What is new, West said, is how casual and constant access to the internet — and in particular social media — has created an environment in which fake news can be created and shared at breakneck speed and with a reach far greater than at any previous time in human history.

This outsized power, often wielded more deftly by fake news than by any other medium, requires a corresponding acceleration of education centred around how people can be their own best defence against the power of misinformation, West added.

And while journalists, librarians and educators — professions which are, by definition, centred around critical analysis and fact-checking — have long acted as filters between the general public and the reach of fake news, said West, the sheer volume of information modern humans are exposed to means that filter is sometimes overwhelmed.

With that in mind, West and his colleague Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington biology professor, have created a course called “Calling Bulls__t,” designed to teach students how to tell fact from fiction in an increasingly polluted digital environment.

A raft of studies and real-world examples demonstrate this problem is the same the world over. Fewer than half of American academic papers are available to be read by the public, according to one source, meaning many times readers must rely on journalists or other intermediaries for access to scholarly work. Canadian science literacy is also poorer than one might imagine, with a 2016 study suggesting that 40 per cent of Canadians believe climate change science is inconclusive or unclear, while roughly one in five believe there is a potential link between vaccination and autism.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is testing the many ways in which politicians can wield staff and taxpayers’ dollars to hamstring news coverage they can’t otherwise control. Stage-managed news conferences, a government-controlled news outlet known as “Ontario News Now,” and labelling reporting on his broken campaign promises as “fake news” are all a part of Ford’s weaponization of communication against coverage critical of his administration.

And in the U.S., President Donald Trump, in lock-step with his ongoing habit of uttering demonstrable empirical falsehoods, took issue Thursday morning with the number of deaths — recorded in a months-long effort by the George Washington University School of Public Health — resulting from the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.

This article was originally published by The Star Vancouver on Sept 13, 2018.