Education Technology and “Fake News”
This is part one of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
Last year, I started this series – my annual review of the year in education technology – with an article on wishful thinking. It was a nod, in part, to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that I’ve found useful in understanding how grief clouds our thinking, how grief makes use want to believe the unbelievable, how it “ruptures the rational,” as I wrote then. 2016 was such a terrible, terrible year, and as I composed my reflections on it for this annual series, I wanted to start by recognizing the pain and the loss.
But I wanted to consider too why the stories we repeatedly tell about education and education technology were so fanciful – stories about impending disruptions and revolutions and robot teachers and brain zappers and so on. Why was so much ed-tech “fake news”?
I didn’t use the phrase “fake news” in that article, although I’d like to think it was implied. The image above from Google Trends helps demonstrate how popular the phrase has become in the intervening months. It’s taken on multiple meanings too: first used to identify the misinformation that had occurred online surrounding the 2016 election, it was later embraced by President Trump to denigrate and dismiss “the mainstream media.”
“Fake news” is partly a crisis of journalism and a crisis of civics; but it is also a crisis of education and technology. It’s a crisis of knowledge and expertise and science. (It’s also an opportunity – surprise, surprise – for lots of folks to try sell us some sort of “digital literacy” product.)
Here Lies the President of the United States
The lying did not start on Inauguration Day – 20 January 2017. Indeed, some 70% of the statements Donald Trump made on the campaign trail, as fact-checked by Politifact , have been deemed to be false; just 4% deemed true. But I suppose we should talk about Inauguration Day nonetheless, since that’s when this administration officially began.
On his first full day in office, the President used a speech at CIA headquarters to call journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” chastising the media for reports that there had been low turnout at his inauguration. Trump claimed that 1.5 million people had attended the event. And at the new administration’s first press briefing the same day, then Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that “it was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
The photographic evidence clearly showed otherwise – the crowds on the mall were visibly smaller than those gathered for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009. And even if those photographs were somehow misleading, the 1.5 million people that Trump claimed would have still been a smaller crowd than Obama’s.
The photographic evidence clearly showed otherwise. And yet the Trump Administration insisted that what we saw and what we knew was untrue.
Gaslight – that wonderful 1944 George Cukor film starring a very very young Angela Lansbury – has resurfaced as part of our vocabulary. To gaslight: to psychologically manipulate someone into doubting the truth that they have seen or experienced first-hand.
Lying and exaggerating has long been a signature tactic of the real estate mogul turned politician. It is now a key feature of his presidency. The New York Times tried to keep track of all the 45th President’s falsehoods this year, but it seems to have abandoned its “definitive list” some time in July. When questioned by reporters from The New York Times and elsewhere, Trump has repeated his accusation that these journalists constitute “fake news.” Their reporting should not be trusted.
Who Do We Trust?
There’s been plenty of ink spilled this year on why Donald Trump won the election. There’s no way I’m going to re-hash that here (even though the length of this article might suggest I’ve tried). But I will say that, among the various appeals that he made to voters, Trump was able to tap into a strain of populism that’s been fomenting in this country for a while – one that seeks to dismiss and dismantle various political and cultural institutions, including the government, science, the media, universities, and the K–12 school system. These institutions – their practices, their research, their statements – cannot be trusted, this story tells us.
This deep mistrust involves a rejection of expertise – something that has emboldened flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers and chemtrail conspiracy theorists and school shooting truthers and “deep state” conspiracy theorists and pizzagate believers, to name a few of the most popular story-lines. And in today’s information environment, all these stories have seemingly become a lot less “fringe.” These beliefs are readily amplified and shared by the very “network effects” baked into the infrastructure of social media platforms.
But blaming social media is too easy and too simplistic.
Blame Schools… “Government Schools”
In July, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that “The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.” Many educators were angered, insisting that this wasn’t their fault.
Nobody wants to take responsibility, which is fine. I get that. Whatever. But at some point, we have to figure out how to clean up this mess. Teachers. Educators. Journalists. I’m talking to you.
No doubt, there’s long been hand-wringing about Americans’ knowledge of science. “A Nation at Risk” and such. Indeed, Americans don’t actively seek out scientific information, one survey found this year, relying on their general news source – “mainstream journalism,” if you will – to provide them with irregular updates on the latest research.
And that’s a problem right there, no doubt, as journalism regularly gets scientific research wrong, often repeating the synopses from paywalled articles or the stories that industry hopes it will share: Is chocolate good for your health? Are standing desks? Is ESP real? Do cellphones cause brain cancer? Should you ban laptops? What does the science say?!
But, to be fair to journalists, a lot of the time we do get it right. So what happens when, for example, we share the research that demonstrates that vouchers do not improve student achievement? Can we expect that – the science or the journalism – to alter public policy in an administration that does not believe in either science or journalism?
See, what might be even more significant than how frequently (or infrequently) Americans learn about science news (or how well that science is explained) is how their personal beliefs influence whether or not they believe that science to be valid.
That is, accepting science is not necessarily a function of education or scientific knowledge – parents who are anti-vaccine are often affluent and highly-educated, for example. It’s a function of politics. Or rather, according to research from Pew released this year, “how much people know about science only modestly and inconsistently correlates with their attitudes about climate and energy issues, while partisanship is a stronger factor in people’s beliefs.” (Emphasis mine.)
But let’s be honest, industry and political groups do still try mightily to shape the science curriculum in American schools, challenging the teaching of evolution, subsidizing science lessons that promote fracking, suggesting everyone should learn to code, and promoting climate change skepticism, for example. Curriculum battles are going to be increasingly fraught as Americans’ beliefs – and beliefs in academic freedom – are increasingly polarized. (That’s another story for another article.)
But the challenges to the expertise of science and schools are even more insidious than the Heartland Institute or Discovery Institute or Code.org pamphleteering. And Americans don’t just struggle with facts about science. They struggle with facts about social studies. This too has been a long time in the making. As Kristina Rizga wrote in Mother Jones this year,
In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. Some state and local funding dropped, too, forcing many cash-strapped districts to prioritize math and English – the subjects most prominently featured in standardized tests. A study by George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy found that between 2001 and 2007, 36 percent of districts decreased elementary classroom time spent on social studies, including civics – a drop that most affected underfunded schools serving working-class, poor, rural, and inner-city kids."
We do not know our rights. We do not understand democracy. Many of us do not understand this moment – how it augurs authoritarianism. “Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government,” Timothy Egan lamented in an op-ed in The New York Times this fall. “When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.”
It’s hard to know what’s “fake news” if you don’t know what’s “real news.” And many Americans do seemingly lack the content knowledge to tell the difference. Add to that, “content knowledge” is increasingly politicized and up-for-debate, as Americans live in a highly polarized society – a highly polarized information economy, one where one pole blasts public education as irretrievably corrupt and frighteningly collectivist. “Government schools.” Sites of indoctrination, not learning. It’s “fake news” all the way down.
The annual Gallup poll gauging the public’s confidence in public schools did reach its highest level this year since 2009. But even with that uptick, just 36% of Americans polled say they are confident in US public schools. While the Gallup poll found just an 11 point difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ opinions on K–12 schools, the picture at the university level is quite different. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in July, 58% of Republicans now say that higher education has a negative effect on the country. (By comparison, just 19% of Democrats believe that colleges’ and universities’ effect is negative.)
What are the implications – on knowledge-making and knowledge dissemination – of that divide?
And why has public opinion about education shifted in recent years? (The Pew survey shows dramatic downward shifts in Republicans’ opinions on higher ed just since 2015.) Pundits have offered a variety of explanations for the distrust in universities: the rising cost of college (something I’ll examine in a subsequent article in this series); an economy that, according to one poll, has led some workers to feel like a college education is more of “a gamble” than a gain (another forthcoming topic); “identity politics” and protests on campuses (yet another forthcoming topic) and the ongoing “culture wars” that posit that colleges – and public schools at the K–12 level – are bastions of liberal indoctrination.
Those “culture wars” are, of course, not new. Ronald Reagan, for example, ran for Governor of California in 1966 with a promise to “clean up that mess in Berkeley.” That is to say, the anti-college drumbeat has been played for and by conservatives for quite some time.
What Does the FOX Say?
While political polarization might not be new – case in point, Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogans in 1966 – the gap between the beliefs of political parties appears to be widening. This affects beliefs in things we typically think of as “political” – one’s stance on immigration, for example – but it also extends more generally, to our information diets – to the news and information we digest – and to what we know and think we know and who we trust to help us gain and build knowledge.
In the same survey cited above, Pew found this year a pronounced divide between conservatives and liberals when it comes to their stance on how the media affects the country. 85% of Republicans now believe the national news media has a negative effect; 46% of Democrats say that the news media has a negative effect. That’s almost half of both parties. “Fake news” has become a powerful rallying cry among many Americans, 46% of whom believe that the news media invents stories just to make President Trump look bad.
One of the most important media outlets for conservatives, FOX News, has been accused for years now – decades, even – of a right-wing slant that veers towards misinformation. Jon Stewart famously accused FOX of having the most misinformed viewers – something that became even more disconcerting this year as it’s clear the President gets much of his news and information from that outlet.
The CEO of FOX, Roger Ailes, resigned last July amidst a sexual harassment scandal, and Ailes died in May of this year. His death prompted a number of reflections on his role in reshaping (and denigrating) public discourse in America. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi put it, “Roger Ailes Was One of the Worst Americans Ever.”
The problem of misinformation and “fake news” is not a recent one. And to be fair, nor is it simply the fault of FOX News.
Rolling Stone, for its part, settled a libel lawsuit in April with a former administrator at the University of Virginia who claimed she was portrayed in the now-debunked magazine article about an alleged rape at a UVA fraternity as the “‘chief villain,’ indifferent to sexual assault on campus.” In June, Rolling Stone agreed to pay $1.65 million to the fraternity in question as part of its defamation lawsuit. In September, the magazine announced it was up for sale, but it appears as though the fallout from the retracted article – the ongoing court cases, that is – might stymy efforts to sell.
Journalism is far from perfect. It was far from perfect during the election. (The gendered dimension of the treatment of the first female Presidential candidate to receive a mainstream party’s nomination is particularly noteworthy now that so many high profile male journalists are being accused of sexual assault.) It has been far from perfect in responding to the Trump Administration and “fake news” this year. Indeed, I’d contend that ed-tech journalism in particular – admittedly (supposedly) my focus here – has peddled “fake news” – “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release,” as I like to say – repeating all sorts of specious marketing claims:
School hasn’t changed in 100 years. Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Half of high school classes will be taught online by 2019. 65% of primary school students will end up in jobs that don’t exist yet. The college lecture is dying. Flying cars are coming, and you’ll be able to get a nanodegree from Udacity in the subject by 2018. Self-driving cars for everyone! Thermal imaging can now tell how hard you’re thinking. We can monitor students’ brainwaves to see if they’re sufficiently “engaged” in class. Virtual reality will be used to teach empathy. VR will revolutionize education. Second Life will revolutionize education. Khan Academy will revolutionize education. And on and on and on and on and on and on.
Why would you ever trust ed-tech journalism?! (Unless you were politically aligned with the very forces spreading those narratives. Unless, that is, you want desperately for these things to be true.)
Kill Your Television
Our information ecosystem extends well beyond “journalism,” of course – beyond fact-checkers and sources on- or off-the-record and editors and legal departments, all of which ideally make sure the news is truly “fit to print.” It includes documentary filmmaking, for example, and it includes school curriculum. The latter was hardly foolproof this year either when it came to “getting things right.” (Yes, another year, another set of textbooks that had to be retracted because of misinformation and other “inadvertent errors.”)
The History Channel aired a documentary in July – Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence – that claimed that the famous aviator, whose disappearance remains (somewhat of) a mystery, had actually been taken prisoner by the Japanese. The film showed a photograph that supposedly showed Earhart and her navigator at a harbor on one of the Marshall Islands. This claim was debunked after a 30-minute search online by military history blogger Kota Yamano. A 30-minute search.
It’s easy to blame social media for the rise of “fake news” – certainly that’s what’s received the most attention this year – but television broadcasting is at least partly responsible for what seems to be this deep societal confusion about “what we know.” (It’s still where most Americans get their news. Although just barely.) The problem with television is not just the propaganda machine of FOX News; it’s also channels like History that show historical and scientific documentaries full of unsubstantiated historical and scientific claims.
I wrote about the history of The Learning Channel a couple of years ago – how it moved away from its roots in educational TV. It’s a much more interesting story than the History Channel’s, which once focused almost exclusively on (US-focused) WWII military documentaries but that pivoted in the last decade or so to ridiculous shows like Ancient Aliens and Bigfoot Captured. The History Channel’s pivot to bullshit would suggest that we’ve been cultivating media misinformation for a very long time. Indeed, Kevin Young’s new book on the history of hoaxes, Bunk, which has just been released, suggests that America might just be, at its core, a post-fact nation. A racist post-fact nation, to be clear.
If there is something profoundly appealing to Americans about P. T. Barnum types – “I’m a bit of a P. T. Barnum,” Donald Trump once claimed – then the media seems to quite keen to capitalize on their message, particularly when the truth can be sacrificed for business models, when it can be bent to generate more eyeballs, more clicks, more advertising revenue, more money.
The Internet as Agitprop
Here’s the Fortune headline from 11 November 2016 – two days after the Presidential election: “Mark Zuckerberg Says Fake News on Facebook Affecting the Election Is a ‘Crazy Idea’.” A year and a bit later, it’s not such a crazy idea after all – even Zuck has admitted as much.
Executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter testified before Congress in October, responding to questions about the role these Internet companies had played in the election, particularly as related to allegations of Russian interference. Initially Facebook had claimed that fake Russian accounts had purchased just $100,000 in ads on its platform – how bad could that be?! One month later, it admitted that 10 million people had seen the ads. A few weeks later, that figure was adjusted upward again: some 126 million people had been exposed to Russian-linked content via Facebook. Various protests, organized via the social media site, were linked to Russian accounts, including the most popular Texas secession page. Twitter too revealed it had sold ads to Russian accounts and the platform was (is) full of bots promoting and retweeting divisive messaging. Even Pokemon Go was purportedly used in the Russian mis- and disinformation campaign. (Phew. Good thing no one in education has penned stories predicting that any of these platforms are going to “disrupt education forever.”)
To focus solely on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election via social media is, in many ways, to misconstrue the problem – its origins, its impact. But to ignore Silicon Valley’s role is also to dismiss its powerful role now, one in which it increasingly controls the public sphere. And to be clear, this isn’t simply about the relationship of these companies to “the news” – although my god, they’re so terrible at handling that. It’s the relationship of these companies to information and to education. (A subsequent article in this series will look at the role – and the power – of platforms in education.)
“Google’s featured snippets are worse than fake news,” Adrienne Jeffries wrote in The Outline in March, pointing to highlighted content that was not just wrong but often racist. These search results, as we have seen so clearly this year, have been disastrous. As Safiya Noble wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January,
That misinformation can be debilitating for a democracy – and in some instances deadly for its citizens. Such was the case with the 2015 killings of nine African-American worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., who were victims of a vicious hate crime. In a manifesto, the convicted gunman, Dylann Roof, wrote that his radicalization on race began following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen, and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. Roof typed “black on White crime” in a Google search; he says the results confirmed (a patently false notion) that black violence on white Americans is a crisis. His source? The Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “unrepentantly racist.” As Roof himself writes of his race education via Google, “I have never been the same since that day.”
In her GQ profile of Roof this summer, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah underscores too how much of his “education” – his radicalization is, I suppose, how people would rather frame it – occurred online. But what are Americans learning online? And what are they learning in school to help them make sense of the information they find online?
Buy My Media Literacy Product, Said the Moose Diarrhea Salesman
Facebook and Google both launched (PR) efforts this year to try to address the “fake news” problems on their platforms. Google announced in April it was adding fact-checking sites to search and news results. Of course, it also ran ads for fake news on fact-checking sites. Facebook said it would beef up its content moderation staff and help users identify fake news on its platform. The latter backfired when Facebook’s algorithms simply promoted comments containing the word “fake.”
Facebook also hired journalist Campbell Brown to run its news partnership efforts. (Incidentally, Brown, a former CNN anchor, also founded a pro-education reform publication called The 74. Small world, I guess.)
So Google and Facebook – and a whole raft of other companies – have decided to get into the “digital literacy” business. Google launched a “Be Internet Awesome” digital citizenship campaign. Facebook said it would work with the ed-tech advocacy group Digital Promise to teach digital skills. The promise of all this industry PR: the solution to problems with social media is solved through more social media. Naturally.
In April, Facebook launched what some called the largest media literacy campaign ever, publishing a list of “tips to spot false news.” Pity, the largest was also the worst. Or, as Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield put it, “Facebook’s News Literacy Advice Is Harmful to News Literacy.”
Facebook’s list of tips are readily recognizable from many news literacy curricula: be wary of headlines, investigate the source, and so on. But this model “gets the Web wrong,” Caulfield has argued. And as he points out,
There’s actually no evidence that this approach works. And conversely, there’s quite a lot history that shows this model does not work. We actually already trained a generation of students with variants of this method. Sometimes we called it CRAAP. In K–12, it often went by the name of RADCAB.
Not only has media literacy not worked, it appears these efforts, as danah boyd worried this year, have backfired.
But that sure hasn’t stopped the money flowing into media and information literacy products. “‘Fake News,’ Media Literacy Become Business Opportunities in Rush to Educate Students,” Education Week’s Market Brief reported in February. “Millions of Dollars Pour into New Literacy Initiatives,” Edsurge echoed in April. Various education organizations have released frameworks and guidelines and curricula (and, of course, press releases announcing that they were “on it”): Teaching Tolerance, UNESCO, and the New Media Consortium, for example.
For his part, Mike Caulfield published a (free) textbook in February, Web Literacy for Student Fact- Checkers. But Caulfield’s work is more process than product – that’s a key difference. Writing in the Educause Review this fall, he says that
Now is the time for an info-environmentalism curriculum. It’s true that information pollution has been a longstanding problem in mass media. But unlike the nightly news, the web is still a collectively maintained and produced environment. We can clean it up. We can pull those televisions and shopping carts and plastic bags out of our shared information streams and Google results.
Caulfield’s textbook – and, more broadly, his work with the Digital Polarization Initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’s American Democracy Project, on his own campus and elsewhere – enlists college students in improving the information environment by not just understanding but by improving information online: editing Wikipedia, annotating news articles, creating video or written content. His guidance is designed for college classrooms, sure, but really the impulse is about an online, information civics in general.
What Do We Believe? (And Why?)
“Critical thinking is at the foundation of information literacy, but those selling it are not necessarily in a position to actually supply it. They may be hampered by an inability to think critically about their own practices and proposals.” That was the provocation from Seattle Pacific University’s Rolin Moe in an article in the publication Real Life. Moe blasts “information literacy” and the larger institutions that it supports – schools, libraries, the media – institutions that purport to want criticality, but only insofar as that criticality creates consumers and producers of content and information.
It’s one of my favorite articles written this year. But it’s complicated…
Real Life (the publication, that is) is funded by the technology company Snapchat. Maybe that helps hint at some of the problems we face with our current information ecosystem: it’s a mess. We’re all deeply implicated in its messiness. Not just students. And not just scholars. All of us. There is no responding to Neil deGrasse Tyson that it’s not your fault there are flat-earthers – particularly if you’re a teacher or a journalist or a person who has ever shared a story online that you didn’t read but really thought the headline was really-right-fucking-on.
If you’re going to decry “fake news,” or the President’s version of “fake news,” then you best not be sharing “fake news” yourself. If you’re going to talk about the importance of digital literacy or information literacy or media literacy or what have you, then you best practice it. Did you share this Raw Story story – “Education officials expect ‘ineffective’ Betsy DeVos to step down as her agenda collapses: report” – or this Salon story – “Expert: Expect DeVos to resign from Trump administration”? Why? Did you read the Politico profile of Betsy DeVos that these (and many other) pieces of clickbait were based on? Did you see evidence in that well-reported story that a resignation was imminent? Or did you just want a story to confirm your gut feelings that she should hit the road? Because, going with your “gut feeling” on a story part of the problem. It’s not just that “fake news,” (or incorrect news) get written. It’s that folks share these stories so quickly and uncritically. Anyway, as Matt Barnum writes, “No, there’s no reason to think DeVos is planning to resign, contrary to viral news stories.”
But that’s what people wanted to believe. That’s how “fake news” works. More facts might not actually save us.
And maybe, just maybe, many of those who peddle education technology products and tell us stories about the future of education are banking on that.
This post first appeared on Hack Education on 2 December 2017. Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com. And yes, this article is over 6000 words. But there are things I left out. You can find them in the supplemental reading section at 2017trends.hackeducation.com.