“Fake news”: updating TOK critique

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“Fake news” is a term that I would happily consign to the annals of 2016 and 2017. Goodbye. But as it lives on, it morphs meaning – and takes on further allure for TOK analysis. It doesn’t just face us, belligerently, with issues of truth and falsehood. It also offers an excellent current example, rooted in real life situations, of another topic central to Theory of Knowledge: the interaction between concepts and language. Further, its shifts in meaning demonstrate the care that we have to take with our tools of analysis – that is, our words and terms. Time for a TOK update!

“Fake News”: useful example for TOK

As we emphasize in TOK, concepts are bound tightly with language. In treating areas of knowledge, we note the essential role of definitions in keeping groups in effective communication, and the need for careful broadening, narrowing, or complete recasting of earlier definitions as we learn more and more about a subject under study.

If we want our students to understand the importance of best practice with language, though, what could be more effective than examining its opposite – especially with a lively example of contemporary relevance? We want our students to see the fog sometimes created by language, in order to be able to see through it.

What does the term “fake news” actually – currently! – mean? Tackling this example involves recognizing the value of new terms in new situations – if the definition is clear – but also recognizing the way terms can be taken over and used in different ways with different purposes, taking public thought with them.

“Fake News”: recommended podcast

For an understanding of the shifts in meaning of “fake news” and their significance, I highly recommend a two-part treatment of the topic on the BBC podcast Trending. Introducing the first episode,  host Mike Wendling declares that the term has become part of “a global conversation about echo chambers, about trust in the media, and about something called a post-truth society”. He introduces three experts on social media, who comment on usage and context across two informative and entertaining episodes (each 23 minutes):

For immediate use in TOK, the 2-minute clip that introduces the podcast episodes is useful. Its central argument is clear and its conclusion firmly supports our own goals in teaching critical thinking – suggesting that we should now be bypassing the term “fake news” and instead, more analytically, “concentrating on differences between facts, opinion, speculation, and outright fiction.”

For more extensive use in TOK, I summarize below – with cartoon illustration by my husband Theo Dombrowski – different meanings of the term “fake news” traced by the experts in social media speaking on this podcast,  and augment their comments from other sources.

Meaning 1. “Fake news” designates sensational click-bait stories fabricated for profit.

“Fake news” first became a widely used term to describe not merely misreported facts, but stories that took leave of fact altogether – fictional stories that mashed together fragments of other stories and added sensational claims. Such stories circulated through social media in the run-up to the American election in 2016. Most of them were against Hillary Clinton or supporting Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, one preposterous story claimed, was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring run out of a pizza shop. Another claimed that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump for president. These went viral and drew massive attention.

Was this calculated propaganda? If so, backed by whom?

As Craig Silverman, Media Editor of Buzzfeed News, explains in the Trending podcast, the fakery was traced to Macedonia, to news production centres where hundreds of teenagers were churning out false stories. They had discovered how profitable it could be to prompt people to click the link to sensational stories and thereby gain themselves advertising revenue via Facebook. Moreover, they had discovered how readily Americans, especially on some networks they targeted, would click on anything to do with Donald Trump. So they invented sensational pro-Trump stories as bait, fabricating “fake news” with no interest but profit.

Meaning 2. “Fake news” is an accusatory label applied to information one rejects because it is contrary to one’s own position or interests.

But then, how do terms get taken over and used for different meaning and different purpose? TOK students, examining the influence of different perspectives, will notice not only that opposing groups use different expressions for the same thing, and that they seem to mean different things by the same terms, but also that they often seize on particular terminology to use over and over to build their own associations. As they – and cognitive scientists – have realized, such repetition can be weirdly, and irrationally, persuasive.

As the panelists in the Trending podcast point out, the term “fake news” has been picked up in this way by politicians and the media, with a shift in meaning to become a disparaging label for information that is so incompatible with one’s own views and interests that one rejects it as false. President Donald Trump first used it most publicly in this way in his inauguration speech and, according to the panelists, thereafter seized on it as his own. Throughout late 2016 and 2017, this application of the term caught on in the media, used in a partisan way. Craig Silverman acknowledges ruefully, “We did this to ourselves. By ‘we’, I mean the media…. Our industry is partly to blame for the confusion we’re at.”

Clare Wardle of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and First Draft News refuses to use the term herself, as she explains (at minute 6:50), because it has become meaningless, and clouds our thinking:

“The reason I don’t like the term now is that it is used as way to describe everything, whether it’s a sponsored post, whether it’s an ad, whether it’s a visual meme, whether it’s a bot on twitter, whether it’s a rumour that you don’t like. People just use it now as a term against any information they don’t like. So partly I hate using it because it’s not helpful, and if this is a really complex problem, and we’re going to start thinking of ways we can intervene, we need to understand and have clear definitions….

“It’s being used globally by leaders as a way to describe information they don’t like, as a way to crack down on information they don’t like and that’s not something that we want. So therefore I think we just need to think very carefully about the language that we use.”

However, where Clare Wardle refuses to use “fake news”, Craig Silverman thinks the better solution would be to use it consistently with its original sense of stories fabricated for profit. He feels it was a useful term for regulators and legislators now concerned with the issue, as it pointed the way to possible solutions.

What are the solutions? First step: clear thought and language! These experts in social media are fully in agreement that clarity of thought and definition is necessary for identifying a host of connected but distinct problems for anyone trying to find reliable knowledge. They point to differences in kinds of false news (e.g. honest mistakes, misinformation, disinformation, misleading and partisan treatment, and images and memes not using language) and in kinds of motivations (e.g. political, social, psychological, financial) behind it, and insist that distinguishing clearly the different threads in the complexity is a necessary step before it is possible to find appropriate solutions.

Some of those solutions, then, might lie in technological fixes and regulation, with social media platforms such as Facebook now giving attention to these new problems. However, larger solutions depend on human alertness and critical thinking.

Interestingly, as Alexios Mantzarlis, Director of International Fact-Checking Network of the Poynter Institute  suggests, social media platforms have provided fertile ground for all kinds of fake news, but at the same time they also provide a means of user engagement in seeking out accurate information. “It would be much harder to check facts,” he says, “without a search engine as powerful as google.”

For the “fake news” of this second definition – news rejected as factually untrue because one does not like it – this fact checking is crucial. Critical thinking is not dead. It comes down to us to work past our own resistance to knowledge claims that displease us, to learn how to seek reliable sources, and not to fall for and spread misinformation. It comes down to all of us, on a broader level, to persist in correction and better communication. There’s an important role here for the attitudes and skills we teach in TOK.

(And as for the so-called “backfire effect” – I’ll update that term in an upcoming post!)

Meaning 3. “Fake news” could be any or all news; “truth” is subjective and “facts” are irrelevant.

This third definition of “fake news” is not one that the panelists of the Trending podcast develop in their discussion, although the extreme subjectivity that they treat does point the way. This definition almost dissolves the idea of “news” altogether, as “facts” are discredited not just as false but indistinguishably true or false, to the point of being irrelevant. Relativism to the extreme! This one worries me a lot as it comes as a dismissive attitude toward knowledge. It could infect our students with cynicism over our whole Theory of Knowledge goal of teaching critical thinking. Why even look for accurate information and sound interpretation if nothing at all can be trusted anyhow?

Throwing about the term “fake news” without any sense that there is an alternative, splashing mud indiscriminately on all sources and their reports, can foster a giant rejection of even the assumptions on which our attempts at thinking critically are based. Journalist and editor Paul Chadwick comments well on some of the implications of conflating all the problems of journalism:

“To equate flawed journalism with fake news corrodes a longstanding notion on which democracies rely: that there can be such a thing as a shared approximation of truth resting on verifiable facts and corrected or clarified incrementally….

“In the absence of a shared approximation of truth, democratic governance under the rule of law gets much harder, and power alone starts to determine truth. “

Already at the end of 2016, writing in the New York Times, Sabrine Tavernise identifies this impact of destroying confidence in all information regardless of its kind and quality:

“Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.

“That has pushed up the political temperature and increased polarization. No longer burdened with wrestling with the possibility that they might be wrong, people on the right and the left have become more entrenched in their positions, experts say. In interviews, people said they felt more empowered, more attached to their own side and less inclined to listen to the other. Polarization is fun, like cheering a goal for the home team.

“There are an alarming number of people who tend to be credulous and form beliefs based on the latest thing they’ve read, but that’s not the wider problem,” said Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. ‘The wider problem is fake news has the effect of getting people not to believe real things.’ 

“He described the thinking like this: ‘There’s no way for me to know what is objectively true, so we’ll stick to our guns and our own evidence. We’ll ignore the facts because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.'”

Whew! Not much left for Theory of Knowledge or the International Baccalaureate’s education goals if ignorance is just as good as knowledge!

So what, in the end, is “fake news”? For Theory of Knowledge, an examination of the shifting meaning of the term opens up the connection between our language and our concepts, in a real life, highly charged public context. In the process of tracing the different implications of the definitions we adopt, we also end up facing the basic assumptions of the education that we’re offering – that we value the search for the truth, and the skills it demands. One of these, clearly, is the need to clarify our concepts and to be aware of where they lead!

PS: Past Resources

I wish the posts I’ve written in the past were out of date. Sadly, they’re not, as the issues are still with us. In case you’re interested in pursuing the ideas that cluster around “fake news”, you may find useful particularly these earlier articles:


Paul Chadwick, “Defining fake news will help us expose it,” Media Opinion in The Guardian. May 12, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/media/commentisfree/2017/may/12/defining-fake-news-will-help-us-expose-it

“History of ‘Fake News’, introductory clip”, BBC Trending, January, 2018.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05vg7ty

“History of ‘Fake News’, Part 1”, BBC Trending. January 14, 2018.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csvtp8

“History of ‘Fake News’, Part 2”, BBC Trending. January 21, 2018.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csvtp9

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L Macknik, “The Delusion of Alternative Facts”, Scientific American. January 27, 2017. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/the-delusion-of-alternative-facts/  This is a good article not treated explicitly above. It offers three “rules” based on the scientific method:

Rule #1: We cannot ascertain what’s true, but we can establish what’s false.

Rule #2: High confidence does not equal objective proof.

Rule #3: Perception depends on perspective, but subjectivity is not a measure of reality.

Sabrina Tavernise, “As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth,” New York Times.   DEC. 6, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/us/fake-news-partisan-republican-democrat.html

Cartoons by © Theo Dombrowski 12/2/18. used here by permission, and permission granted to teachers using them in their own classrooms.

One thought on ““Fake news”: updating TOK critique

  1. […] the charge of “fake news” resounds to the point of meaninglessness (as treated in my recent “Fake News: Updating TOK Critique“). But Mantzarlis insists that “we do want to find the truth.” Interviewed in the BBC […]

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