Something is wrong with the overarching idea of “truth”, and we see the effects every day – in parliament, on television, in newspapers, on social media. The term “fake news” is used so often it has itself become drained of meaning.
For centuries universities have seen themselves as repositories of truth, or at least discernment. An entire body of critical work exists to detail the very atomisation and context collapse that has shattered public discourse.
Like many who believe in higher education I’ve been looking everywhere for a response from universities. For a fight back. For, at the very least, some support offered to a society struggling with a fundamental philosophical problem. I’ve not found it.
Why have I not found it? What should happen next? I’ve been talking to researchers on the cutting edge of this developing field of inquiry to find out.
Just say no, fellow kids
There’s an “online safety” movement, primarily in the compulsory sector and FE, that deals with the basics – personal and financial safety. Where such provision does touch on distinguishing fact from fiction, it feels like something best viewed on Netscape Navigator. Who has published this information? When? What’s (seriously) the top level domain – apparently dot org is ok, but dot com might not be. Maybe, if we are lucky, why has this information been shared?
It’s a deficit model of information literacy – based on the belief that people are fundamentally able to tell truth from lies but need a little help with the mechanisms of new technology like the information superhighway. It’s wrong because it doesn’t take into account internet culture or conversational norms – it’s dangerous because these new ways of making arguments have become dominant both online and offline.
“Fake news” is no respecter of social or intellectual status – you don’t have to look far to see members of parliament or professors sharing nonsense just because it happens to serve the argument they want to make. And there’s an ugly elitist trope that suggests “fake news” is what causes other people to hold opinions we don’t like or understand.
Your ideas are formed on a message board you don’t read
Penny Andrews researches political discourse through the lens of fandom. They, like many academics in their field, focus on the social media domain, but they take a far more immersive and anthropological, approach to internet culture.
We do teach this stuff, but only to digital media and society students, and then only glancingly. For most students the critical toolkit they are working with comes from eSafety lessons in years 7-9, delivered by people who don’t understand how information works on the internet. Most kids have profiles on social media by the age of 11 – they are looking at all kinds of stuff and probably understand the context of most of it more than their teachers.
Writing and speaking about political fandom has not exactly endeared them to their academic peers.
There’s a reluctance to engage with internet culture at anything other than arm’s length. It’s a peculiar way to treat a domain of study, not least because the referentiality and irony that suffuses it is lost.
Fandom – or “stan culture” – characterises the hyper-enthusiasm and sense of group identity that embodies a passion for a person or idea on social media. The “stan” term comes, as you might expect, from the Eminem track – much of the language is taken from media refractions of Black southern women (“and I oop”, “spill the tea”). From the outside, it is difficult to see ephemeral texts generated by Ariana Grande superfans can tell us about the state of UK politics.
But Andrews argues that the self-reinforcing “otherness” of fandom perfectly describes, for example, the Corbynistas or the Brexit Spartans. In such discourse dispassionate “expertise” is suspect – a symptom of a lack of belief, and often a lack of knowledge. Justifying opinions on subjects that you understand in less detail than committed fandom members will betray a lack of knowledge, or a lack of a referential frame, that devalues the very idea of the “expert”.
Carole Cadwallader, for instance, is a very readable investigative journalist, but she does not understand finance, the commercial use of data, or the role of data brokers. For all that we may be caught up in her crusading passion to call out the actions of Vote Leave and Aaron Banks (especially if we “stan” Remain), we shouldn’t be amplifying or using the stuff that she doesn’t get right.
On the other end of whatever spectrum you want to use, pewdiepie (a youtuber primarily focused on games and gaming culture) was called out as a conduit for violence when a mass shooter included the phrase “subscribe to pewdiepie” in a manifesto. For Andrews, this was hugely embarrassing for those making the claim.
This was a meme. This is reference culture. Shitposting is a part of what all kinds of online communities do, and if you are going to understand why a reference is where it is you need to understand that it might be nothing more than an in-joke.
The last train, and the last training
Mike Caulfield, based in Washington State University, Vancouver, researches “fake news” and our responses to it – working on the Digital Polarisation Initiative supported by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and involved in the development of the “Check, Please!” site. He’s suspicious of the idea that the answer to more “fake news” is more of the same old training.
Media literacy, news literacy, critical thinking. It’s not that any of those things is bad. In fact, all of those things can have a good impact. But they can also have a bad influence if they aren’t approached with a real eye to the current environment, and an intellectual honesty about whether they are solutions to our current dilemma or just dusted off funding requests from the past.
Working with fifty cohorts across numerous institutions he notes that one thing often characterises ineffective responses to “fake news” – the bizarre decisions that students make are most often explained by stuff they have been told by teachers in the past.
For him, the complicity of politicians and experts in spreading falsehoods is a dangerous development.
It’s OK to be radical, of course. But what we see in a lot of these cases is really a radicalisation that is not grounded in fact, in life experience, in anything like that. It’s based instead on a distorted sense of what people think, of what experts think. And my guess is its primary vector is elites and mid-level elites, who adopt opinions or spread claims based on what they find on the net, and then those views are pushed down to the larger population.
People say, for example, that Twitter isn’t real life. And it’s true. The views on Twitter are far more extreme than views at your average pub or coffee shop. But now put a politician on Twitter, and watch them start to believe there is a broad demand for extreme policies. Reporters start to cover trends that aren’t really trends. And local experts — the person in your social group you know as the person who knows the most about current issues — they get pulled into the stream too.
Much online political discourse looks radical for a reason – it exists to shift moderate views further towards an extreme. The often laughable use of “facts” is simply a springboard for opinion and theorisation. Both veterans of the world of education technology, Mike and I used the idea of “solutionism” (the use of over-generalisation to point to simple – and suspiciously convenient – solutions for complex problems) to describe some of this work. No matter how many universities we need to build in the next x number of years, we refused to get on the MOOC train a long time before the Trump Train was at the platform.
But there is room for both technology and sociology in our responses to online discourse. Technology – such as improved algorithms and deflating the attention economy – can address today’s threats, but only education can defend against tomorrows. The parallel is with phishing – as good as Google gets in auto-filtering the most egregious attempts, those keen to defraud will always improve their approaches. To truly address the issue people need to know what phishing is, how to spot it, and how to report it.
In the pay of MI5 and/or the Russians
Jennifer Jones has moved seamlessly between the worlds of academia, journalism and technology. These days, she supports the growth of citizen media to allow communities to own (and indeed write) the stories that are told about them.
I teach citizen journalism as journalism 101, deconstructing a story and building it back up. People think there is a mystery and intrigue around journalism – I tell them how to conduct interviews, how to condense stories and how to produce a package to a deadline”
Especially in the hard graft of local news, there are simply not enough journalists out there. Things like council meetings and community action are simply not reported unless the community itself does the bulk of the reporting. For better or for worse, the idea of journalism being something that a trained journalist does is dying out. Community groups need to produce media that can be picked up by news platforms.
As well as being an empowering experience, such skills dismantle some of the more disturbing modern tropes about reporting – that it is filled with bias and corruption. People would rather believe that someone sharing information they don’t like is in the pay of a cultural bogeyman than accept that independent journalism, or indeed any journalism, is an actual job.
Jones feels lucky to have worked in an outward facing role while she was employed at universities, as she could work directly with otherwise hard-to-reach community groups.
It’s about getting people to cross the threshold. The combination of a mistrust of experts and the availability of information of all sorts at your fingertips means that people are increasingly thinking university has nothing to offer them. But people do still need skills to be able to filter information, and teaching journalistic practice can help.
She emphasises that this is best served by personal connections. Resources or guidelines – even friendly celebrity-backed campaigns – will just get you trolled off the internet, another facet of a vibrant and anarchic culture that needs to be understood.
Teaching students about truth
Helen Beetham has researched and practised in the field of digital literacies in universities pretty much since it became a subject of inquiry, following mass adoption of the internet. One of her passions is connecting theories of literacies with the practice that supports students. She advocates supporting academics to rethink their subject specialism in light of new digital challenges, rather than sending students “somewhere else” to deal with these issues.
But she doesn’t feel that current approaches, essential though they are, equip students to resist discourses they encounter in digital spaces beyond the academy.
Academics can take radically different positions on truth and knowledge, without ever confronting what these positions mean for the project of the university overall. No wonder the far right have identified this as a vulnerability when they turn their fire on liberal institutions. Students are listening to these ideas – that pit identity against objective truth – and finding them attractive. And there are much more practical issues too. The Prevent agenda may be the only place students in school and college encounter the question of what to believe and why
The relativist turn that researchers treated as a theoretical storm in nineties post-modernism is now all too real.
For Helen, the framing of criticism and expertise in the seminar room is key. In class discussions students find it hard to take up a position, feeling they lack the expertise and credibility to do so, even though the tropes and mannerisms of expertise are well known and widely modelled. There is an assumption that criticism and opinion need to come from a place of complete knowledge. Academic developers often encourage students to ventriloquise more expert language, on the way to becoming more authentically informed about a subject. But there remains a knot of anxiety and confusion about how to take up powerful positions in relation to knowledge.
We’ve seen a lot of this in academic responses to the Brexit debate. There is ample use of fake news on both sides of the debate – on the Remain side a recent example would be a tendency to confuse the worst possible outcome with all outcomes, or to confuse an unlawful act with an illegal one. Nearly everyone is happy to share poor quality information that supports causes that they have sympathy with. And this has always been the case – think of conversations you may have in your local pub or in a group of close friends.
But as Helen puts it:
Social media and public scholarship make it harder to know when an academic is speaking as someone with a professional relationship to knowledge, and when they are just spouting off as a regular person with opinions. I think that’s probably healthy, but it doesn’t help students understand what kind of evidence they should bring to bear when they take up a position themselves, whether that’s in an academic assignment or in a social media group.
The distinction between professional and personal social media use was a live conversation in the early part of this decade – most who have considered it now conclude the idea is nearly impossible.
And on why universities themselves are so quiet, Helen’s sense is that people who are delivering literacies training to students know that they are doing an important job, but don’t realise how the context has been narrowed. And academics may believe that just by engaging with academic methods, graduates will emerge from their courses equipped to deal with fake news and other negative online messaging.
She sees great potential for work outside the campus – citing the work of Helen Millner at the Good Things foundation, which supports the development of online living skills via libraries and job centres. Such provision currently covers things like banking and voter registration – but Helen would like to see this extended to digital citizenship, which would more broadly cover using online tools for local and personal campaigns for change.
Fake news did not take place
On the cutting edge of this field, the people I speak to kept coming back to a few common themes. A key thread is the idea of citizenship, in the sense of an active, empowered, and literate engagement with ideas and causes that have a direct impact on a community.
Where this is done well, as – I would argue – in the fandoms that Penny Andrews talks about, this can act as a further spur to mistrust mass media. After all, if a newspaper or broadcaster gets something wrong that you understand and care about, why would you trust them on anything else?
What Jennifer Jones is doing with community groups, what Mike Caulfield is doing with students of all ages, and Helen Beetham’s ideas that span both groups, is to de-privilege the tools and techniques of journalism to make the process visible and accessible to all. As we all thought in 2006, the advent of social media makes everyone a publisher – but by simply providing a platform without the techniques to make effective use of it, we have generated an avalanche of opinion rather than analysis.
Seeing the sausage machine and how it works can help us understand the work of people who do (generally) look for truth and accuracy alongside an effective way to tell it. The attention economy that social media has created will not simply fade away, and those who have the tools to exploit it skew coverage in troubling ways. But assuming the worst of all journalists is neither healthy nor effective in understanding what is really happening.
It’s here that the second key theme comes in – I kept hearing almost wistful references to the post-modern and post-structuralist theory that dominated humanities and social sciences teaching in the eighties and nineties. Though these days largely dismissed abstruse theoretical fancies, before fashions changed a lot of the groundwork was solid. We have a critical literature on how to function in a relativistic, hyper-referential, world that privileges individual experience over just about everything.
Though now profoundly uncool, theorists of a certain age have the beginnings of a theoretical toolkit that might help us function, now that the predictions of Lyotard, Baudrillard and Latour feel far closer to reality. The idea of the simulacrum – “truth” with no relationship to the reality it describes – feels like something that could help us make sense of the world.
What could universities and academics do?
Other than complaining about misinformation where it directly affects them, the response of academia and the sector to the “fake news” debate has been muted. Capable of rigorous and forensic research that can establish both truth and the boundaries of truth, they have used these tools primarily to further their own positions.
What we’ve missed is a step back to the meta level. Universities have been fighting their own battles – on Brexit, on funding, on their own actions – but they have yet to take a position in the wider struggle that foments these conflicts.
And finally, if nothing else, we need to get a handle on expert overreach. Too often we see academics stepping outside of the narrow field where they hold genuine expertise to comment in broad terms about issues they know little about. A good media manner and a willingness to sound plausible and considered means that our few genuine academic megastars are trotted out to add a donnish gloss to a bewildering array of topics. This devalues both academia and the idea of expertise – if we are going to make serious claims about truth and rigour, it needs to stop.
Universities need to offer full support to their staff when social media and expert exposure turns nasty, especially when they are happy to benefit from an academic’s personal media profile. No-one should be finding threats and intimidation in their inbox – and where this happens they should have the full and unhesitating backing of faculty and central teams.
If you watch as many debates as I do, you will be familiar with the disheartening regularity that these as peter out into each side yelling statistics at the other (“numbers!”, as Penny Andrews likes to tweet). This is the inevitable outcome when we see the concept of truth in quantifiable rather than epistemological terms. Most sector communication is rooted in absolutes, and in approaches taken from the sciences. It’s time for the social sciences and the humanities to lift public discourse to the next level.
David is grateful for the support of Penny Andrews, Jennifer Jones, Helen Beetham, Sofia Ropek and Mike Caulfield in developing this article.