In recent news, pundits have been discussing fake news and its impact on the election. President Trump’s former campaign manager, now counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway, has famously deemed fake news as “alternative facts,” after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer misspoke on inauguration crowd sizes. For this week’s issue, the Highlander sat down with Professor Joseph Kahne of the UCR Graduate School of Education to discuss his study that he co-authored with Ben Bowyer, a lecturer in political science at Santa Clara University, on fake news and media literacy among students. Kahne discovered from a national survey that, regardless of political knowledge, youth regarded inaccurate posts as correct when it aligned with their views.
Here is a transcript from the interview that has been slightly edited for clarity.
Evan Ismail: Why did you start researching media literacy and fake news?
Joseph Kahne: I think it’s been clear for some time that, first, people are increasingly getting their information online and often getting it through social media like Twitter and Facebook and it’s tough to tell what’s credible and what isn’t. So, we wanted to see whether people could judge the credibility of what they found accurately in particular with their political knowledge and partisanship and those judgements. And we also wanted to see with something media literacy education.
Ismail: Would you say it is fair to say that the media has always been slanted to some direction?
Kahne: Well, I think different media outlets are different in that regard. I think it’s fair to say that there has never been, there’s not, a purely objective source of information. But, there are definitely some sources of media that have a bunch of practices involved to try to make them less partisan and some that try to provide a partisan outlook. And there is nothing inherently wrong with providing a partisan outlook but it can create problems especially if one is only hearing from media outlets that provide a partisan outlook.
Ismail: Do you believe that the media follows social trends politically? Does the media dynamic reflect the polarization in this country?
Kahne: I think overall it probably reflects two dynamics. First, as a result of the internet and cable television, what you’ve seen is the ability for far more channels of information to exist at the same time and with that becomes a sort of market pressure to specialize and so you want to provide what your audience wants. And one of the dynamics is many people want to hear news that reinforces what they already believe and so the market has responded to that by providing outlets with partisan leanings. And unfortunately, these two dynamics reinforce each other; the nation becomes more partisan, people have a bigger demand for news with partisan leanings, the market provides that and then people read news that reflects their own partisan beliefs, people become more partisan.
Ismail: Building on that, do you think the media has played a big role in why the country has become so partisan?
Kahne: I think the media certainly is one of the contributors but it is not the only one. Another factor is things like the way districts are drawn. Increasingly, districts are drawn to reflect partisan divides and that also creates problems.
“I think it’s fair to say that there has never been, there’s not, a purely objective source of information.”
Ismail: Going to your study, do you think we could limit fake news without being seen as “censoring” information?
Kahne: Well, I think there needs to be action on multiple fronts and I think you’re right, that it’s hard to imagine how you could, and that you would want to, fully censor news. We have a commitment to freedom of the press that makes a lot of sense. And you would have to ask ‘who are these people doing the censoring?’ and ‘why would you believe they would be objective?’ And so, since you would really not want to empower one individual or group to do the censoring because they might as well be biased, I don’t think that’s the way to go. I think we could create mechanisms to help people better vet what they’re seeing and judge whether what they’re seeing is credible. But I also think ultimately we can’t count on Facebook or any big organization to do that for us; that ultimately we have to do two things, we have to cultivate a commitment to the truth and to finding news that’s accurate because if people want it, the market will respond to that. And if people don’t want it, all the fact-check websites in the world aren’t going to help you. And the second thing is, we have got to give them skills and mechanisms for judging the accuracy of what they see because wanting may not be enough if you literally can’t tell.
Ismail: Do you think that fake news played a big part in the election in general?
Kahne: You know, it’s hard to know for sure. It was a very close election. There were three states that Trump won that he didn’t win by a large amount and if those would have went in a different direction, there would have been a different outcome. Many factors could have made those states go in a different outcome so it’s hard to know how much of a role fake news played but it does appear to have a played a role but it’s hard to assess how much.
Ismail: Do you think fake news will follow a similar take in the election when discussing Trump’s administration?
Kahne: I think we’re already seeing that some of those dynamics are continuing. Most notably, there’s a great deal of talk that his press secretary espoused things that are demonstrably false and Kellyanne Conway used the expression alternative facts. Those two things, along with others, lead us to believe that these dynamics are skilled and it’s hard to know what will remain as prominent to the degree that they will be used by all sides of the political discussion and whether or not people will start being more discerning but I think it’s too soon to tell.
Ismail: Going into the role of schools, in the study it was mentioned specifically that schools play a big part in educating students about democracy, discernment and the role of media so do you think that schools could be guilty of their own information bias?
Kahne: Certainly. Individual teachers, at times, there’s no doubt could have certain kinds of biases. In general, we have mechanisms for dealing with a lot of that. Most of the studies find that those kinds of biases tend to be relatively small so I don’t think that it’s something to be particularly alarmed about but it’s important to always have a professional culture in schools where teachers are paying attention to these issues and avoiding partisan biases.
Ismail: In the study it was mentioned about direct motivation, which is defined in the study as the desire to justify conclusions that align with prior beliefs; how do you suggest students prevent themselves from filtering in class with just direct motivation?
Kahne: I think this is one thing that we know is that it’s important that we look for varied perspectives on a given issue and understand varied perspectives. It’s important that to in a certain sense check yourself by saying ‘is this a strong argument?’ ‘How credible is the evidence?’ I think when people enter into the mindset of ‘How do I prove what I believe is right?’ that’s when you get into a lot of trouble. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to prove that something is right. What’s problematic is when you only look for arguments that back up what you already believe. You really want to critically assess those arguments and you really want to critically assess arguments that come to different conclusions than you do.
Ismail: How do we ultimately teach media literacy?
Kahne: Well, I think there are a variety of kinds of literacy, it’s almost media literacies. There are different kinds of things you want to be able to do when you engage with news media. For example, some stuff is just how you search and getting good at knowing how to search for varied viewpoints. Some of it is around knowing how to fact check and fact checking websites. Some of it is around production and circulation of media like knowing how to produce compelling and accurate media and how to circulate it effectively. So, there are many things you want to know how to do with media.
Ismail: So, do you think that media literacy is up to schools to teach or is that an individual thing we learn?
Kahne: These literacies are developed in multiple ways. So, many people may learn how to produce media because they want to learn how to shoot skateboard videos. And you don’t need a school, necessarily, to teach you how to do that because kids will learn it from one another how to do it and they’ll learn how to do it well. Once they have those production skills, they may well apply it to a much broader range of activities, similarly one might learn in a classroom how to produce a website on an issue for class to share information and they could then use those skills in something related to their hobbies. So, I think it can happen in many ways and places and conversations with one’s friends and families can make a difference. There are online schools that can help people, but I do think schools are one way we can do things and one of the nice things about schools is that we can teach a broad cross-section of young people so it’s a good place when you want to make sure you’re reaching people who might not intrinsically be motivated to look into these things or may not have access to some of the other kinds of supports.
Ismail: I have been hearing this a lot lately about people wondering about who to believe. Does that start with them and making sure they know what to look for such as varieties of facts and information?
Kahne: Certainly, one really good thing to do is try to get a variety of viewpoints. but you also need to have the ability, because on a big issue you’re going to find a variety of viewpoints. Some cases are going to be made with better arguments and viewpoints than others and some sources of information are more dependable than others. So it also really requires asking questions of whether this is a reliable source and what do other people say about this source of information, what are more objective people, or people without a big stake in the issue, saying about this information and you have to start asking those kinds of questions. And there are places you can look, like on the web for example, to tell whether certain types of claims are accurate.