Politicians and pundits disguised as journalists have always concealed the truth to advance their agendas. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. But, as I’ve said before here, the manipulation and opinionalisation of the news in recent years seems more insidious than ever. And we, as news consumers, do an incredibly lousy job of checking.
We are all guilty, at least occasionally, of being lazy when it comes to analyzing the facts of hype. But what we have now is laziness at its extreme consequence: we carry the most powerful research aid in history – the Internet, through our smartphones and laptops – like eleventh fingers. If we tapped into its true potential, we might not be so remarkably, collectively gullible. But why dig for an objective answer when our favorite cable news channel or podcast personality will tell us what we’re conditioned to expect from them?
But small glimmers of hope appear from time to time. An insightful documentary, a learning institution’s new commitment to civics, that teaches some of the tools people need to analyze the direct truth of the biased and the certified accuracy of the shameless conspiracy.
Add to these faint and fleeting glimmers of hope a group of students at Centennial High School in Bakersfield who have placed another arrow in the quiver of truth: a phone app called Middle Ground that gives some direction to the debate.
The app was created for a national competition called Virtual Enterprise, in which teams develop imaginary products or services and market them – with abundant, sometimes exhausting enthusiasm – to potential customers. Except that Middle Ground is not imaginary.
The app – which is not yet available on app stores – works like this. Users select a hot topic of national interest from a menu of options. One click takes the user to a landing page that offers reports on that topic from left, right, and center perspectives. The developers of the Middle Ground app – using the Ad Fontes Media Bias graph for guidance – offer CNN (left), Fox News (right) and UK news service Reuters (centre).
The app is not a fact-checking tool, although that would be a nice addition, but rather a place to, in a sense, compare news. If users actually read all three stories offered on a given topic, they will ideally notice the different approaches and pick up on the nuances of media bias and neutrality.
“We realized that the political discourse, this fake news, this bias, was so important” to understand, said Max Geissel of Centennial, whose 19-person team qualified for the Virtual Enterprise nationals in New York. in April, with two teams from Ridgeview High and one from Bakersfield High. “It’s so relevant today. We really wanted to find a solution to this.
Centennial Councilor Jacilyn Elliott said the purpose of Middle Ground is to promote respectful and constructive dialogue on national issues.
“The idea was to help people come together on politics, or at least appreciate other people’s viewpoints without getting angry,” she said. “The students saw it as just a need.”
A side benefit of the app, and similar tools, is that they can serve as platforms for nonsense-sniffing exercises, which should be mandatory in government, history, education courses. civics or social studies. And I am an advocate of discernment exercises between opinions and facts, instituted on a regular and periodic basis.
I know that some teachers are already addressing these issues, but I believe they cannot be emphasized enough. Potential voters who are regularly fed fearmongering and outright lies — I give you Alex Jones of Infowars (10 million website visits per month as recently as 2017) — crave more fearmongering and outright lies. They become vulnerable, malleable and, in the extreme, potentially dangerous. And unless we give them the skills to navigate misinformation – sometimes sophisticated, often grossly un- – we risk losing them forever. And many of them vote.
I don’t know if Republican politicians are more likely than Democrats to spread untruths or exaggerations – or if right-wing or left-leaning Americans are more likely to buy into them – but my judgment, neither surprising nor unique, is that we are more deeply engulfed than at any time in our history, and modern digital tools, which should make us more aware of this manipulation, are making matters worse.
Janine Zacharia, former Washington Post bureau chief in Jerusalem, put it in these urgent terms: “Consuming the news will only become more complex if we don’t educate people on the difference between credible factual reporting and its opposite.
“…We need to make sure that everyone with a smartphone – before he or she taps to share a story – has the critical thinking skills and training to determine what is real and what isn’t. is not. … I would argue that teaching students how to consume digital information should be considered as essential as teaching math, coding, or Spanish.”
Ed Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, is also appalled.
“If you had told me when I first started getting into the media,” Wasserman said, “that in 40 or 50 years I would have this device that would give me access to a wider audience than the newspaper the world’s largest … I would say ‘Well, that looks like heaven.’
“Instead, here we are and we find there’s a dark underside to this… More people believe things that aren’t true than perhaps ever before.”
When I see people calling black white and white black, I get discouraged. How does democracy survive such widespread rejection of democratic values? Such widespread acceptance of false narratives?
But then something brings me. A glimmer of hope that the pendulum has reached its negative peak and is returning to reason. A faint lighthouse from the shore.
Thank you, Centennial High School. Thank you, Middle Ground. It’s not much – not yet – but it’s definitely something.
Robert Price’s column appears here on Sundays. Contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.