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Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist leads workshop on fake news

By JACKIE RITTENHOUSE | February 27, 2020

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute hosted a workshop titled “Facts or Fakes? A Hands-On Workshop on Navigating the News in an Age of Disinformation” on Saturday at Croft Hall. 

Scott Shane, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, led the workshop. He emphasized the value of accurate news, especially during the upcoming 2020 presidential election. 

Sophomore Kyle Mailhot attended the event. Mailhot noted that because there is such a prevalence of fake news on the internet, it is incredibly important to fact-check information from unrepeatable sources.

“If you read something online that seems a little bit outlandish or slightly outside the realm of what you believe to be normal, and that provokes strong emotions or make you feel a certain way, you should probably think about why it is making you feel that way, why you should believe it,“ he said. “Be careful and do some background research.” 

During the discussion, Shane elaborated on the recent increase in the number of news and media sources and how it relates to the current political news climate.

“When I was an undergraduate, there were three or four TV networks, you might get a local paper thrown onto your lawn everyday. That was about it,“ he said. “The business model had to be ‘stay away from extremes, check facts’ to appeal to everyone. You couldn’t afford to lean too far to the left or right for fear of losing half your audience.”

Shane continued by explaining the emergence of cable and the subsequent growth of the internet, arguing that these trends drastically changed the nature of news. 

“There is a huge proliferation of information. The last stage? Social media. So even for those not tech-minded enough to create their own website or blog, now it’s easy to go on Facebook and start spreading information around. It is a very different world we live in right now,” he said.

Although he cautioned against being gullible, Shane warned attendees that there is a fine line between healthy skepticism and total cynicism. 

“You want to learn to be skeptical without being cynical and succumbing to the notion that ‘it’s all lies out there.’ Because it’s not all lies out there,“ he said.

To demonstrate common mistakes people make in relation to reading false information, Shane displayed a series of common sayings, and asked for volunteers to read them off. Each saying had an added, redundant word, like “the” or “a.” 

None of the three volunteers noticed the repeated words when reading the sayings out loud. 

“Why does this happen? Why do we miss the repetition? Because we read what we want to read. These are familiar phrases, our eyes take it in and we just repeat the phrase. Instead of actually reading it, we are just taking an educated guess at what’s there,” Shane said. 

For the next hands-on activity, Shane displayed an optical illusion of a woman. He had the audience members raise their hands if they saw a young woman and compared this with the number that saw an old woman. 

The wide variability in what people saw, Shane said, showed how people see things in different ways. 

He added, however, that innate biases can multiply this effect, making the phenomenon even more significant when applied to political writings.

“Two people can look at [words] on a page and see something completely different from each other, regardless of the ferocious ideological feelings that a lot of us carry around nowadays,” he said.

Attendees participated in an activity which involved various news articles — all presumably concerning false information of some sort — and groups were tasked to deduce which information was false and what potential motives authors had to publish false statements. 

After all of the groups had explained their findings to the larger audience, Shane prompted the audience on how the world of false information could be improved, starting with what individual people can do to combat all of the fake news. 

During the event, community member Erich Spencer commented on the importance of searching for credible sources to ensure that the news you take in comes from a reliable source. 

“The first thing you could do is to Google search it. Hopefully, before that, though, you have reliable news sources rather than unreliable news sources. Trusting the New York Times or some other news source that has credible stories, that’s how you do it,” he said.

Shane also asked the audience what websites and social media platforms can do to protect against false information. 

Spencer pondered the idea of an information rating system, similar to the rating system for nudity, violence or harsh language that movies use. 

“I wonder if we could see a merge of social media with the motion picture rating system, with what sort of content you’re signing up for, a bias score, a content score,” he said.

Acknowledging that the system could be flawed depending on the raters’ biases and political leanings, Spencer stressed that ratings would have the potential to be objective and factual.

Additionally, Shane asked the audience if they thought the government could be involved in regulating and preventing the spread of false information.

Shane pointed out a different way that the government could intervene in fake news.

“Another thing the government could do is have a very sober, boring staffer take over the Twitter account of Donald J. Trump and try and cut back on the bogus and fraudulent material,“ he said.

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