Fake news

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on July 2, 2018

The recent flurry of interest in ‘fake news’ is interesting not least because I have been making a fuss about it for years with little success. Cynics might say that its current profile is one that allows politicians to behave badly and then scream, “Fake news” when it is reported but there is so much more to it.

It has always been with us but we have been comforted by the mediation by recognised publishers making us assume everything is accurate. I remember a story, probably improved by retelling of a school in the far east setting up a connection with an Inuit school in Canada to learn about different cultures. They did their research in the library finding pictures of small children in fur lined hoods fishing in round holes in the ice. It must have been with some surprise that on opening the pictures they were sent the first was of a boy going to school with a Thomas the Tank Engine bag on his back! This story not only shows that being digital breaks down stereotypes but also that books do not update as they get older. Nor, of course, do some websites.

This sort of information literacy seems to have two strands. One is about the questions you ask search engines and the sort of results you might get from different keywords and the second is about how you validate the information once you get it.

Alan November, the well-known American expert in this field, apparently takes a mischievous delight in asking young people if they know how to use Google just to see the looks on their faces. He is then able to demonstrate that maybe they don’t if like most people they bung in a couple of likely words and don’t get past the first page of results. After all the best results will be on the first page, won’t they? Won’t they?

Users need strategies to get at the best information and to limit the number of hits they get. As well as beginning to think about how authors might describe their work and to adapt keywords for search accordingly there are a range of much underused search engine tools that will help. For instance, once you can think outside the box with your search a great way to find alternative viewpoints is to search only sites from another country. Multiple realities are within our reach but bring us a step closer to the need to analyse the accuracy of what we see.

Before I look at how to decide whether what we have is fake news or not let me ask some questions that highlight the differences between a book-based reference system and the online.

  • Does your search engine have a Dewey classification system? No, it doesn’t. It relies on your abilities as a searcher.
  • Who’s the author?
  • Are those links really to sources created by others or is there a self-validation going on?
  • When was it published?

These are easy to answer about a book and can give you information or at least leads to its validity.

A good place to start when trying to verify a source is not technical. Use common sense. This works well with one highly placed site in any search engine about Martin Luther King targeted at education and learners but in fact a neo nazi organisation’s site. It’s not good hoping it’ll be removed by the nice search engine people, it’s been there for years. The web is like the wild west, full of opportunity but quite lawless.

It’s useful to know how to identify the author, what sort of site has links to the one you’re looking at and what the site looked like in the past but too few people know how. I can see that using these techniques will be time consuming but they are vital if we are not to be fed lies or a collection of sites by the same writers that by their number appear to confirm the information.

Before the end of this short post (yes, it is short, the reality is complex) a word about copyright. You want to use that picture? Simply being on the web doesn’t mean you can use other people’s intellectual property. Do all those Google users know how to see if the author has allowed use and in what form?

The above is an outline of what people need to learn if they are to be safe online. The alternative? If you’re very young it might be a poor piece of homework, in your teens a dietary fad or unpleasant cult and as an adult you might end up buying a car that doesn’t exist.


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