While the term fake news is a relatively new descriptor, the concern over our ability to discern reliable information from what is fabricated or distorted is not new. In his 2010 address to his fellow Jesuits, Fr. Adolfo Nicholás discussed the potential of electronic networking to shape the future world. His concern, however, was that very power is also prone to generate superficiality; when people can access information, spread it across the world and influence the decisions of countless readers within minutes, “then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.”
That technology that provides so much promise is now being engineered to deliberately present false and misleading information. Technology formerly available only to sophisticated production studies can now generate fake videos that can be produced using smartphones. As the Los Angeles Times reports, while footage of a political candidate accepting cash from a foreign agent may be fake, it might take days to determine the veracity of the video; the resulting damage would have already caused irreparable harm.
And certainly these dangers should be enough to raise concerns about our overly-plugged lives: in the deluge of information continuously being generated and consumed, are we losing our ability to think critically and to empathize?
The seeming reduction or loss of critical-thinking skills has become an acute concern. A growing number of professional development opportunities are currently available, designed to teach students to be more thorough in their thinking. With the advent of the fake videos being generated, we will need an entire new series of educational programming to teach people to adequately analyze the legitimacy of video news.
While attempts are being made to better education information consumers, the impact of the fake news cannot be minimized. With the reduction of critical-thinking skills comes the inability to actively engage in what is real and what is perception. We can convince ourselves that since things are good for me they are good for everyone. And since our social media accounts are populated with people who generally think as we do, our world becomes narrow, eliminating outside perspectives.
This is a particularly alarming perspective when we are talking about young people, learning to test their ideas, challenging their prior learning, and forming educated and informed opinions.
What steps can we, as educators, parents, caring adults, take to help raise students’ awareness of the need to critically review their thinking? Below are a few ideas designed for the classroom but that may have some applications outside the academy as well.
- Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their ideas: where did I get this idea? What support can I find to verify my thinking? How has challenging my thinking on this topic changed or strengthened my ideas?
- Provide guidance on how to critically examine sources for validity and credibility.
- Investigate campus and community events and suggest programming or volunteer opportunities that might test students’ perceptions.
- Encourage open and honest dialogue, stressing that all students have the right to speak and also be challenged to evaluate their views.
- Assign group work where students are tasked with creating a case study that presents the various perspectives on an assigned topic highlighting a social issue.
When we lose our critical-thinking abilities, we too often fail to see that others have needs that we cannot identify with. The safety of the device that intrudes between us and the world further distances us from the needs and concerns of others. But challenging students to move outside their comfort zones, put their devices down, critically evaluate ideas and truly interact with others can strengthen understanding of our diverse and challenging worlds.