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If we are going to teach ourselves and our students how to identify fake news or other sources of disinformation, then we should know what rules their creators use.

This video by the New York Times identified the Seven Commandments of Fake News by deconstructing notable examples of disinformation.


Video source

The seven rules were:

  1. Find the cracks (the rifts or sore points in society)
  2. Create a big lie (so outrageous that it is almost too hard to believe)
  3. Wrap the lie around some truth (to create believability)
  4. Conceal your hand (make it seem like it came from someone else)
  5. Find useful idiots (to spread the fake news)
  6. Deny everything (when found out)
  7. Play the long game (the impact is not always immediate)

Now those seven rules were created in the pre-Internet era. Today the effectiveness of any of the seven is exacerbated by the breadth and speed of spreading disinformation.

So what is an ordinary person to do?

One expert in the video said: Question more, answer less. I suggest: Question more, retweet or repost less (or not at all). Wheezy Waiter, a YouTube I follow, pointed out that a headline is not an article.


Video source

One way to question more is to read, watch, listen, or otherwise sense more, and then to reflect on what we process. There are no shortcuts; it takes work.

I received a Google Home Mini a few months ago as a gift and have used it almost daily to listen to the news.
 

 
I used the Google Home app on my phone to subscribe to several channels, e.g., BBC Minute, Gizmodo gadgets and tech spoken edition, NPR World, Channel News Asia headline news, Straits Times news bulletin.

I like being able to control the device with my voice as I busy myself with chores around the house.

However, there is one news source — the Straits Times — that irritates me. It inserts voice ads promoting services near the end of its news. None of the other sources does this.

I do not know if there is a policy for or against force ads in this platform. My guess is that there is not a firm one, and since most providers do not advertise, there might be an unwritten or fuzzy rule not to include ads.

But on news source does this. It probably thinks that it is clever for taking advantage of this loophole or opportunity.

It is not. Listeners may leave them out of the news list. I leave out them last so that I can say, “OK Google, stop!” to not listen to the ad.

The issue is not one of economics. Listening to and providing these news snippets is not a paid service. Think of this as like tweets for your ears.

The issue is respect. If you do not respect your listeners, do not expect them to respect you in return.


Video source

In the video above, Hank Green described a science fiction novel published in 1911 about “personalised news”. A century later, we now have news feeds.

The difference is that the personalised news in the novel was defined by the subscriber. The current reality of news feeds is that they are dictated by computer algorithms.

Neither extreme is healthy. If you choose only what you want to consume, you create a bubble. If you let something else choose what you read, you lose control. The latter process is also not transparent.

In the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica world, you stop becoming the customer being served products; you become the source of data and the product to be sold to others.

In between the novel and current Facebook fiasco is another reality. It exists only among those who take control. For example, I decide what I read with RSS. I decide who to follow and learn from with Twitter. Both lead me to reliable sources of information and carefully curated alternative points of view.

If you don’t control the feed, the feed is controlling you.

 
My Twitter feed led me to one of the local rags, Today, which declared that “news” spreads faster and more widely when it’s false.

TODAY attributed the article to the New York Times, but it was actually an almost word-for-word copy of the report in the Nature journal. The report was based on a study published in the journal Science.
 
The TODAY paper wrongly attributed the source to the NYT. The article was a near copy of the one in Nature.

This was not fake news, but it was bad attribution. You can blame social media or any platform, but the fault lies in people making poor or bad decisions.

The Nature article was more reliable — it reports academic findings after all — and the numbers were scary:

the most popular true news stories rarely reached more than 1,000 people, whereas the top 1% of false news stories reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people. False news that reached 1,500 people did so six times faster than did true stories. And falsities were 70% more likely to be retweeted than truths…

This was true whether the fake news was generated and spread by bots or by people. Even when bots were removed from the equation, “fake news… still spread faster than truth, showing that this property stems from human behaviour”.

It is not the platform. It is the people and the decisions they make.

What motivates people to propagate what they do not read, fact-check, or understand? Novelty — it grabs attention and begs to be passed on. Novelty combined without a clear link to evidence or even a lack of evidence also seems to contribute to the rapid spread of fake news.

Again, it is not the platform. It is the people and the decisions they make. It is easy to retweet something interesting but unconfirmed; it takes more effort to fact-check and pour cold water on the spread.

Therein lies a possible prescriptive note to stemming fake news. For people to fact-check, they must access a source of information. So it is not enough to tweet information. The tweet must be accompanied with a primary source.

By the way, the New York Times had its own take on the Science article. Unlike TODAY, it did not misattribute and copy wholesale. It was more thorough in that it provided examples and graphs to illustrate spikes of fake news.

This reflection was brought to you by attribution to sources and links to articles. It is not fake news and therefore unlikely to spread.

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This tweet is telling.

You can get information and news from an authoritative source or you can get it secondhand.

As social creatures, we rely on social cues. While cues are important for communication, they are not always ideal for facts.

Earlier this month I learnt about the death of a former director of NIE. The initial report came to me via the grapevine, and while that particular source was reliable, it was not official. Short of hearing directly from a grieving loved one, I waited to hear from the university or a press release.

As much as I dislike Facebook, I am part of several groups for professional and personal enrichment. What all groups have in common are speculation, guesswork, and rumour that pass off as fact. More frightening is opinion that masquerades as expertise. What is terrifying is the general acceptance of hearsay.

Today we have no excuse for not even looking for original sources and authoritative channels. It might take some work, but like any skill, you get better with practice.
 

 
Ignore the saying “do not look a gift horse in the mouth” just because someone gave you juicy news or a shiny nugget. You owe it to yourself and to others to get things right. Get the information straight from the horse’s mouth because the stable is open.

 
Earlier this month, @tucksoon tweeted this CNA article about fake news.

I turn the question on teachers and rephrase it slightly. Do teachers know how to spot bad theory and practice?

Do they know why they should question:

  • Learning styles?
  • Homework?
  • Assessment practices?
  • Digital distinctions?

If not, I share what I have written and curated on:

You are biased and I am biased. If you choose not to admit that, then you are stubborn and biased.

We are biased because we learn things that help us survive. Things like talking or acting a certain way. We are biased even when we learn to balance a bike a certain way.


Video source

This amusing and informative video illustrates just that. If you ride a bike that turns right when you try to turn left, you cannot ride it even if you already know how to ride a normal bike well.

The creator of the video declared: Once you have a rigid way of thinking… you cannot change that even if you want to.

Most people can relate to this if they think about value systems or mindsets. Change agents learn this lesson the hard way and very quickly when trying to implement change.

But an anecdote with multiple demonstrations, no matter how intriguing, is not necessarily representative.

The man and his son illustrated that it was possible to unlearn something deeply embedded. He learnt to ride the “backwards bike” in eight weeks; his son did it in two weeks.

He then made a statement about neuroplasticity that reeks of Prensky-speak that should be ignored in this context. Neuroplasticity is a physiological process that refers to how the brain can change throughout life.

While it might be true that a young brain learns faster than an old one, we also retain the capacity to unlearn and relearn throughout life. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. It just takes time and effort.

One thing the video did not explore is mindset. This is not a function of brain physiology but of many other things like work culture, social environment, individual drive, risk-taking capacity, etc. We will change only when we

  • are aware there is a different way of doing things (e.g., just-in-time and just-for-me learning via Twitter)
  • realize that there is a problem with the status quo (e.g., meaningless mandatory workshops), and
  • think we have the capacity to change (e.g., mentors to guide).

If you want to teach an actual old dog new tricks, it will require practice and rewards. The process is Pavlovian.

If you want to change people, you must not only persist and incentivize. You must also address their mindsets.


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