Teachable Moment: Fake News and Critical Media Literacy

The great and urgent paradox of twenty-first century America is trying to discover the truth about fake news, a phenomenon spurred by the 2016 presidential election.

Fortunately, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler have analyzed how often people viewed fake news to help us understand that elusive truth:

[W]e find that approximately one in four Americans visited a fake news website, but that consumption was disproportionately observed among Trump supporters for whom its largely pro-Trump content was attitude-consistent. However, this pattern of selective exposure was heavily concentrated among a small subset of people — almost six in ten visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Finally, we specifically identify Facebook as the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of fake news and show that fact-checking largely failed to selectively reach consumers of fake news.

Since these researchers identified that about 65 million Americans consumed fake news during the study period and that fake news constituted about “2.6% of all the articles Americans read on sites focusing on hard news topics during this period,” everyone interested in facts and truth are justified in considering ways in which we all can combat the negative impact of fake news, not only on our democracy but also on all ways of life in a free society.

This urgency is especially relevant to educators, andGuess, Nyhan, and Reifler’s study speaks directly to the need for teachers at every grade level to incorporate critical media literacy into the education of all students.

To meet that need, co-editor Christian Z. Goering (University of Arkansas) and I have collected a series of essays in Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America because critical media literacy, we argue, may well be the only thing between a free people and their freedom.

CML Goering Thomas cover

In Chapter 1: An Introduction, Chris and I explain:

Turning … to Kellner and Share (2007), we define critical media literacy for the purposes of this volume as “an educational response that expands the notion of media literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies” (p. 59) and “focuses on the ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality” (p. 60). It is the goal of this volume to build the aptitude and skill set of students and their teachers for critical media literacy in hopes for a better tomorrow. (p. 3)

And then, in Chapter 2: An Educator’s Primer, I offer some foundational concepts as well (excerpted next).

Being an educator at any level—K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education—has always been a challenge in the U.S. since formal education in theory is linked to preserving our democracy. Being a critical educator at any level in the U.S. has always been and remains nearly impossible because formal education in practice is more about enculturation and maintaining the status quo than seeking the social equity that remains elusive despite our claimed ideals as a people.

With the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, the media punditry has become obsessed, as has Trump, with fake news and post-truth public discourse. In this volume committed to investigating and interrogating fake news and post-truth discourse in the context of curriculum and instruction grounded in critical media literacy goals, we offer the foundational opportunity for educators to consider and reconsider the nature of truth/Truth, knowledge, and facts both in the teaching/learning dynamic and throughout mainstream media and all sorts of public discourse, notably by and about political discourse.

First, let’s establish the terms and contexts essential to understanding and then teaching critical media literacy:

  • “Fake news” is a technical term (although most public discourse fails to adhere to this technical distinction) that identifies mostly on-line information that is intentionally false and provocative, designed to be click-bait and drive internet traffic and thus revenue.
  • “Satire” is purposefully distorted information that assumes readers/viewers recognize the information is not factual, but intended to make larger points. The Onion, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight are examples of satire packaged in seemingly credible formats, parodies of traditional news media.
  • “Post-truth” is a relatively newer term for the popular and often right-wing embracing of (and misunderstanding) post-modernism’s challenge to the objective nature of truth/Truth. Not to oversimplify, but post-modernism argues that truth/Truth is defined by whoever is in power (not an objective reality), while the contemporary popular and right-leaning political embracing of “post-truth” is more akin to “the truth is whatever I say it is regardless of any evidence or the credibility of evidence.”
  • Mainstream journalism functions under two important and corrupting norms: (1) journalists (just as educators are implored to be) maintain a stance of objectivity and neutrality, an apolitical pose, and thus (2) most mainstream examinations of topics, debates, and events are framed as “both sides” journalism, rendering all positions as equally credible and valid. For example, the mainstream media, as John Oliver has exposed, gives the general public the false notion that climate change has as many scientists for as against the “theory,” a term read by the public as “hypothesis.”

As noted parenthetically above, to embrace teaching critical media literacy (in conjunction with critical pedagogy and critical literacy) is disrupting the traditional norm that educators remain apolitical. This volume’s authors recognize that educators face tremendous hurdles for teaching critical media literacy: eroding job security with the dismantling of unions (and absence historically of unions in many regions of the U.S.), increasing accountability for student test scores on exams that are reductive and demand of students far less in their literacy than critical media literacy (in other words, our efforts to teach critical media literacy can be disregarded with “that isn’t on the test”), and deteriorating teaching and learning conditions such as overcrowded classrooms and more teachers inadequately prepared to teach (such as Teach For America candidates).

None the less, if we genuinely believe in universal public education as a key mechanism for democracy and individual liberty then we educators must be well versed in critical media literacy, and then we must make that central to our classrooms. Throughout this chapter, the intersections of media and education are examined in order to highlight the power and dangers inherent in fake news, post-truth discourse, and traditional calls for educators and journalists to be objective, apolitical.


Reference

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59-69.

See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity

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Paul Thomas Reading from Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America

Paul Thomas Reading from Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America

Join Hub City Bookshop 6 p.m., Wednesday, March 21 for a reading and signing with local professor and Furman professor Paul Thomas to promote his latest book Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America.

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Women’s Voices: A Reader

Fear of the Female Voice, Sarah Gailey

This story is a great summary of the cultural fear of female voices. In a society where men hold power, the most powerful thing a woman can do is to have influence over men. The idea of a member of an oppressed class influencing the powerful is fundamentally threatening to the existing order of society, because it puts some degree of power into the hands of those oppressed people. So, when the Sirens sing and Odysseus can’t resist being drawn in by their song, the reader sees an epic hero displaying a rare weakness: these women are so potent and dangerous that they can bring down a figure as powerful as Odysseus.

This is just one example of a significant theme in Greek mythology. Sirens appear in several different stories from Greek myth, and those stories all reflect and reinforce our societal terror of the influence of women on powerful men.

Truth Matters, Roxane Gay

Words matter. The truth matters. It is incomprehensible that this needs to be said, but this needs to be said. Donald Trump has long been a liar. Mendacity is as familiar to him as breathing. When he was simply a bloviating reality television star, his lies were easy to dismiss because he was simply a man with a bad tan, a bad toupee, and bad business acumen. Then he was running for president. His lies mattered more but were somewhat easy to dismiss because politicians lie. Now, though, Trump is the president of the United States. He is supposed to represent not only the minority of people who voted him into office but the rest of America, too. He is supposed to represent the United States throughout the world. He is shamefully inadequate for what his office demands. There is so much money cannot buy.

When Trump lies, it cannot be dismissed, no matter how frequently he does indeed lie about everything. He lies about his predecessor Barack Obama. He lies about the size of crowds who come to see him speak. He lies about his taxes. He lies about former opponent Hillary Clinton. He lies about the FBI, the environment, healthcare, America’s standing in the world, foreign policy, the economy, what he thinks, what he believes, and even what he says. The frequency and scope of his lies are such that we could easily be numbed to it all but words matter. The truth matters. Most of us still recognize that.

A year in fucking men, Joana Ramiro

You see, I met a lot of men this year. Many of them I wanted for a night, some I came to want terribly, with more than just my body. But all the men I met this year, those who lied with me and those who merely held me close, the ones whose affectations I came to know and the ones who flashed through my life, those I gave my body to and those I gave my all, all of them I cared about.

Women fuck. And they like it too. Our enjoyment doesn’t have to stand in direct opposition to how much we cared for the men we fucked, much like the reverse isn’t true either.

If in the second half of the 20th century the West fought for free love and the uncoupling of sex from its romantic associations, the first half of the 21st century might be about learning how to understand sex as nonetheless a profoundly binding act between us and others. A human act, if not the most human act of all.

This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex, Rebecca Traister

But in the midst of our great national calculus, in which we are determining what punishments fit which sexual crimes, it’s possible that we’re missing the bigger picture altogether: that this is not, at its heart, about sex at all — or at least not wholly. What it’s really about is work, and women’s equality in the workplace, and more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.

Sexual assault is one symptom of that imbalance, but it is not the only one. The can-opener here — the sharp point that pierced the aluminum that had sealed all this glop in — was indeed a story about a man, Harvey Weinstein, who committed professional harm that was also terrible sexual violence. And yes, many of the stories that have poured forth since — from James Toback’s unsolicited ejaculations, to the playwright Israel Horovitz’s alleged forced encounters with much younger women — have turned on nonconsensual contact, violent physical and sexual threat, the stuff of sex crimes. But even those tales — the ones about rape and assault — have been told by accusers who first interacted with these men in hopes of finding professional opportunity, who were looking not for flirtation or dates, but for work. And they have reported — they have taken care to clearly lay out — the impact of the sexual violence not just on their emotional well-being, not just on their bodies, but on their careers, on their place in the public sphere.

In the Maze, Dayna Tortorici

Women, too, felt the pressure. “Your generation is so moral,” a celebrated novelist said to an editor my age. Another friend, a journalist in her fifties, described the heat she got from online feminists for expressing skepticism toward safe spaces. “I’m conservative now,” she said, meaning to the kids. But the most persistent and least logical complaint came from men — men I knew and men in the media. They could not speak. And yet they were speaking. Near the end of 2014, I remember, the right to free speech under the First Amendment had been recast in popular discourse as the right to free speech without consequence, without reaction.

The Year in Collaboration, Helena Fitzgerald

My idea of literature is one absolutely circumscribed by the concerns of white male gatekeepers, both the dead and the living. From as early as I can remember, I have always sought out maximalism in art and literature. I love things that take up enormous space, that break rules, that put their feet on the furniture. I love art that has bad manners, art that’s too big, too loud, too much. Most of this art—at least what is made readily available to a very young person, what is easiest to find when you’ve only just started looking—is by old white men, because that’s who’s allowed to be too big and too loud and too much. They are the only ones not hideously punished for bigness of any kind.

Growing up as a woman I was made acutely aware that I was not allowed to be big or loud. I am naturally both those things, but my life has been an attempt to shrink myself, because smallness is rewarded above all else in women. I longed for writing that broke out away from confined spaces because I was at every juncture shepherded into them. It is important to see ourselves in art, but it is important to see an alternative to ourselves as well, to dream something beyond the strictures by which we are confined and the obligations to which we are indebted. I always ended up at men first, work men made on the subject of being men. It was a failure of my own imagination and circumstances, and it was also quite simply that this was so much the majority of what was available, and what I was taught was good. I ran toward further embracing these gatekeepers instead of seeing that their primacy and the system that made them primary was the same one that punished me for bigness, was the reason there was so much from which to run.

Humanity Has a Serious White Man Problem

Have you ever watched reality TV shows such as Hoarders? A disgusting but all-too-common urge to both glamorize and demonize, all in the name of entertainment and celebrity?

Have you ever wondered why pop culture often turns our gaze on these people (or any group deemed profitable fodder for such filth)—and thus, turning our gaze away from other groups?

This didn’t take much effort, but let me try my hand at a similar technique, although I am merely working here in words. Consider the following:

Feel free to let me do the heavy lifting here, but also, I invite you to wade into the above for yourself: The thread running through these pieces gathered quickly and easily the day after Columbus Day is the violent, rapacious white man who hoards money and power at the expense of and on the backs of others and then uses that money and power too often to abuse and even kill those deemed weaker or lesser than these white men.

That we have failed to address the white man disease in humanity is not some great accident, however. Once with power, white men have carefully orchestrated how we view the world through keeping our gaze elsewhere, such as our manufactured fear of Muslim terrorists and centuries-long narratives of violent black men.

This slight of hand has mesmerized us into worshipping these horrible, often soulless men—Hugh Hefner, Christopher Columbus, Donald Trump—because of their bravado, wealth, and power.

White men, often themselves mediocre, have parleyed their amassed wealth (typically begun in eras characterized by the very worst of human nature) into assuring that the general public has developed a skewed system for evaluating self-worth: white men are forgiven any and every flaw because “he built this,” but everyone else cannot survive even one flaw, unless s/he is conveniently associated with the right white man.

The power of the arrogant white man is so intense, so capable of charming a people, that in the U.S. many excuse Trump minute by minute for the deplorable human he proves himself to be while following his Pied Piper lead to demonize Colin Kaepernick.

And while the rise of Trump is one of the most disgusting and oft-repeated narratives of U.S. history, it is a slow-boil story, and we are the willing lobsters who gleefully offer ourselves up for the pot.

More catastrophic—and all the more hard to understand as worthy of our disregard—is Stephen Paddock, murderous white man who is the most recent recipient of the inordinate passes white men receive: media headlines never offering his race and refusing to call him “terrorist,” family and friends shocked and confirming he was just your Average Joe, and the ultimate tone-deaf claim that there was simply nothing to tip us off about his reign of horror (because a certain kind of white man can walk through this world without any sort of scrutiny, even as he amasses an arsenal—or systematically sexually abuses women).

So let’s turn here to thinking carefully about this world built by white men—because the architects have insured this world protects them and as a consequence it works against everyone else.

While these rapacious white men use “I built this” as their shield, we must recognize it as supreme distraction; they are hiding something very insidious behind that shield, in fact: their mediocrity, their soullessness, their monstrosity.

As a white man, I speak from experience; the shield is powerful, more powerful than we tend to admit.

But also as a white man who believes to my marrow in a better world where equity and justice are achieved for every human, I am left with a disturbing quandary.

I have a fantasy that one day every worker in the service industry simply refuses to work; this act of resistance would highlight the inherent scam that is capitalism (the white man’s paradise), the false narrative that the owners and bosses are worth more than the workers.

That fantasy has a new version—one in which every black athlete in the NFL takes a knee and refuses to play a down of any NFL game so that the league and our so-called political leaders are forced to eat their words, called on their bluffs as the blow-hard balloons they are.

But these fantasies are the musings of a white man who recognizes that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to end such inequities. yet, this system built by white men is a trap: workers are enslaved by hourly wages and tethered to work-bound insurance and retirement so that those workers have no real humanity left, no option to assert their dignity, their voices.

Even very wealthy black NFL athletes who are taking ethical positions are being cast as the bad guy—a perverse rebooting of the white hat/black hat Hollywood whitewashing of cowboys and Indians:

It’s the propaganda that irks [James Baldwin] most, the betrayal of the imagination. Baldwin has predictable issues with John Wayne, but the squeaky-clean Gary Cooper puts the most deceptive face on the killing of Indians. If you’re black, Baldwin says, you identify with Coop until you realize that the Indians are you, and that Coop, and Wayne, is a symptom of a culture that won’t “grow up” and face a history that has “no moral justification.” It’s “the lie of pretended humanism.” It’s Coop and it’s — wait for it — Doris Day.

Like Baldwin, we need this moment of recognition—that we have been duped, conned, hypnotized.

It no easy thing to admit that we are patsies, but we are being used.

Now, there is no question about white men being outnumbered, but there remains a question about whether or not everyone else is really any better than these mediocre white men ruling us.

That question terrifies me nearly as much as all the Trump-hoarders ruling this world.

The Vulgar Academic Pose of President Trump

Criticism of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and then president has been intense among university-based academics and scholars across the U.S.

However, the great irony of that fact lies in how President Trump’s “both sides” approach to addressing the Charlottesville, VA, violence is merely a vulgar version of the academic pose found among those academics and scholars—the traditional call for professors and researchers to be politically neutral and objective.


second coming yeats


Having been a public school teacher for almost two decades in the rural South and now a university professor for 15 years and counting, I have lived the tyranny daily of being chastised as “too political,” as tarnishing my credibility as a teacher and professor by my writing-as-activism.

I stumbled through a bit more than a decade of teaching before I discovered an organized body of thought that defined for me what I had been practicing, although quite badly—critical pedagogy.

Critical pedagogy acknowledges two powerful and seemingly contradictory realities: (1) all human behavior, including teaching, is inherently political, and thus, the neutral/objective pose is itself a political stance, and (2) indoctrination must be avoided and rejected.


crit ped kincheloe


K-12 public education and higher education remain resistant to these concepts, continuing to demand apolitical teaching (or, actually, the appearance of apolitical teaching) and to bristle at teachers and academics as activists.

In fact, teachers and professors take great risk to their careers when stepping beyond the neutral/objective pose, even outside the walls of the classrooms where they teach.

That the norm of formal education remains entrenched in the same sort of “both sides” mentality shared by mainstream journalism is made more disturbing by the dishonesty of that expectation because educators at all levels of schooling do in fact take stances.

For example, history taught through a patriotic lens is a political choice that is allowed to appear neutral, although it is clearly not.

And there are topics, such as the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, that are taught with a clear moral imperative—no “both sides” false equivalence afforded those who believed in exterminating the Jews.

No classes ever treating as equal “both sides” of pedophilia, child abuse, misogyny, rape.

None the less, activist-academics such as Howard Zinn have been and continue to be marginalized as merely activists.


neutral zinn


Particularly in higher education, many go about their work as if the real world does not exist, and thus, the ivory tower myth and scathing phrases such as “merely academic.”

But to borrow Zinn’s metaphor, to remain in a neutral/objective pose in the classroom as an inequitable and unjust world charges on is to endorse that inequity and injustice.

President Trump’s “both sides” pose in the face of white nationalism and emboldened racism is inexcusable, but to pretend that Trump somehow sprang out of thin air is an ugly lie, a delusion.

The rise of Trumplandia confirms there is blood on the hands of neutral academics and scholars, just as there is blood on the hands of “both sides” mainstream journalists.


lady macbeth


Trump is capitalizing on a vulgar academic pose that must be refuted, but it is equally inexcusable that traditional academic neutrality remains entrenched as if it has no consequences beyond the walls of schools and universities.

The U.S. needs Trump’s vapid logic repudiated: Good causes will always have some flawed and even bad people, as well as bad decisions, but causes dedicated to hatred and racism never include good people.

If educators, academics, and scholars are somehow excluded from taking ethical stands, we have little room to point fingers at Trump and his reign of white nationalism.


See Also

white folk (switchblade)