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Where the Truth Lies: Navigating Bad Information on Social Media

Recent essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education have taken on the current state of fake news and misinformation. Phrases like “Post-Truth” are being thrown around with more frequency. One root of this issue is social media in how these platforms allow us to customize the information we receive. Each user is able to curate their own version of truth and reality that is agreeable to their worldview. Reality, to some, is what shows up on their Facebook or Twitter feed. Truth, for many, is always preceded by a hashtag. Messages, especially fake news, largely take off because of emotion, with the important context detaching from the trend by the third retweet.

In The Construction of Social Reality, John R. Searle argues that our social reality is built from own personal worldview and filtered through a lens of collective or individual intentionality. How we communicate our version of reality hinges on language used to describe internal and external realism. The ontological problem, as Searle describes it, is that the real world exists despite any of our interpretations of it. As we have seen, connecting competing views as a means to build something positive has proven to be increasingly difficult these days. Searle defines truth as “a matter of correspondence to facts,” however the subjective nature of what defines facts appears to complicate matters further.

In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane argues that “if the headline is big enough, it makes the new big enough.” The film is an attack on the Yellow Journalism of the early twentieth century. Today, Kane’s words would sound more like this, “if the headline is outrageous enough and shared enough times on the Internet, it must be true.” Fake news becomes real when it reaches omnipresence - once it's on everyone’s social media feeds, it must be real. The problem here is that everyone you know may read the same websites and share the same worldview and, therefore, share the same information. Here is the difficult question; how do you know that you aren’t living within an ideological and intellectual bubble?

Rolin Moe, the Director of the Institute for Academic Innovation at Seattle Pacific University, has commented on the growing issue of finding truth in the Digital Age. In an essay titled “All I Know is What’s on the Internet” in Real Life Magazine, Moe argues that some current education practices are part of the problem:

Schools and libraries are not conduits of a knowledge society, but appendages of a knowledge economy. Instead of teaching students critical thinking, they have stoked decontextualized curiosity. Rather than develop students’ wisdom and character, they have focused on making their students’ market value measurable through standardized testing.

I teach mass media literacy with Moe’s concerns in mind. My students do not just learn to identify acceptable sources (it is no longer that simple), but to investigate each source and question the research of others. Only by consciously doing our own fact-checking and research can we get the most complete story. Truth is often perceived as subjective and seeing through the fog requires interpretation, something that will not be learned from studying for a standardized test. What our youth is being graded on is not applicable in the real world where critical thinking and evaluation skills are key to effective thinking and communication.

Navigating the never-ending mess of this Information Age is becoming more difficult by the day. Discussion in my mass communication classes change every semester because the world of mass media changes drastically throughout the year. It’s like a multi-headed dragon we cannot take down to save our sanity. The saving grace, for me personally, is that my students are already becoming conscious of the problems and pitfalls of finding truth in the information age. As a society, however, we have largely lost track of how to judge information (as evidenced by every other political conversation overheard at a restaurant, the mall, airport, on television, etc.). Everything is at our fingertips, we can constantly imbibe new content, and if this process is never paused there is no time for critical thought.

Moe argues that “truth is measured in page views.” Throughout the last presidential election cycle, we have seen customizable political worlds replace reality and context with confirmation bias. A social media user who has to unfriend someone they disagree with may feel empowered, but they are also minimizing their circle of information in the process. We are only “Post-Truth” if we push ourselves into a corner with self-selected information. When everyone is surrounded by agreeable content, all useful conversation stops. The only way we can prevail in an era of fake news and misinformation is to widen and deepen the scope of our communication practices.


Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication for the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros., is available on Amazon. Follow Chris on Twitter: @chrisyogerst

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