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Book Review - Fact vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News

By Will McClure

The dreaded phrase "fake news" has become a mainstay in political discussions and general social interactions over the past few years. This trend has been tied to the term “post-truth”, a concept  “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief” (“Oxford Living Dictionaries,: nd.). The usage of “post-truth” skyrocketed from 2015-2016, increasing by 2,000% attributed, in no small part, to the U.S. presidential election and Brexit (“Word of the Year”, 2016). Post-truth circumstances have encouraged the term fake news to be tossed around with increased frequency. This may have you wondering how you can find the truth in what some refer to as a post-truth society. 

The answer lies in education and personal development. It is the responsibility of both the individual and educators to hone critical thinking skills, which will allow one to navigate the tenuous and seemingly overwhelming landscape of the digital age and to identify personal biases that may contribute to post-truth circumstances.  You may think to yourself, “there is no way to filter so much information!” Or, “I just have to take everything with a grain of salt.” Or even, “I use computers all the time, I know how to filter information and find answers, why do I care about post-truth and fake news?”. I am happy to say, there are resources out there to help you filter truth from falsities, one of which is the book, Fact vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News by Jennifer Lagarde and Darren Hudgins. 

The History

A common misconception, highlighted by Lagarde and Hudgins, is that fake news is a modern problem. The age-old adage, “There is nothing new under the sun” rings true here. Fake news has been documented in the United States as far back as the American Revolution! Benjamin Franklin used a method of fake news to “supplement” the newspaper the Independent Chronicle to ensure the United States achieved true independence from Great Britain before arriving at a peaceful resolution (National Historical Publications & Records Commission [NHPRC], n.d). Almost two hundred years, later Woodrow Wilson used the Committee on Public Information (the CPI) to similar ends with his “Four-Minute Men” to control the narrative around WWI (Daly, 2017). There are other examples from history, but these serve the point of illustrating that fake news is not a modern problem.

The Cause 

The cause of post-truth circumstances and the clarion call of fake news is sourced at a very basic level. Lagarde and Hudgins identify the roots of the issue being linked to confirmation bias, the bias created by our brains seeking information that confirms what we already believe to be true; and implicit bias which refers to how our existing biases and stereotypes affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. In short, our brains like the easy way out, “I already believe x so y must also be true”. These biases are exacerbated by the massive amount of information one has at their disposal. Most of humankind’s knowledge is available to an individual with a few quick clicks. The staggering amount of data presented to us can often, consciously or unconsciously, cause us to go back to looking for the easy answer. What do I know to be true (correctly or incorrectly) and what corroborates this view? In short, post-truth and fake news are a historical problem ingrained in our psyches. It will take a conscious effort to overcome an unconscious response. Overcoming human nature may seem like a herculean task. However, Lagarde and Hudgins have provided numerous techniques and resources to empower you and your students to search for truth. 

The Response 

The research techniques identified by the authors will assist students in searching for truth with more purpose:

3 Pillars to Web Literacy (pg. 23) 

  • Purposeful Search- Using advanced search techniques to narrow the scope and raise the quality of information  found on the web. 
  • Effective Organization and Collaboration- Being able to organize all of this information into a comprehensive and growing library of personal knowledge.
  • Sharing and making sense of information- Sharing what we find and what we learn with the world, and using the knowledge of others to help us make sense of it all (November & Mull, 2012). 

Lagarde and Hudgins also identified the media literacy tool known as the CRAPP test, developed by the Meriam Library of California State University. 

CRAPP Test (pg. 25)

  • Is it Current- When was it published? Are their references current? Is currency important to your topic? 
  • Is it Relevant- Does the info relate to my topic? What audience is it written for? Is it an appropriate level for my needs? 
  • Is it Authoritative - Who is the author/organization? Are they qualified? Is it edited or peer reviewed? If a website, does the URL tell you anything?
  • Is it Accurate - Where foes the information come from? Are there references? Are there errors, broken links, etc?
  • What is its Purpose - What’s the purpose of the information? Advertising, Scholarly work? Opinion? Is there bias? 

Adding these techniques to your research and providing them to your students will start any research project off on the right foot. In addition to these general guidelines, Lagarde and Hudgins provide a series of tools to assist with more specific tasks and skill-building, here is a small sampling of the collected resources: 

Provide Framework and Tips for Determining Credibility (pg 82-87)

Sample Lesson Plans (pg 87-91) 

Fact Checking Tools and Other Useful Resources  (pg 91-98)

  • – a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. 
  • Whois Lookup – DomainTools offers this search site as a way to learn more about a website based on its domain or IP address. 
  • Quiz: How well can you tell factual from opinion statements? – This quiz allows students and educators to see how their own biases affect their ability to discern fact from opinion in the news. 

The tools outlined in this book, paired with the insight into the history and psychology of fake news in a post-truth world, can equip you and your students to be discerning and savvy participants in any news environment. To close, I would like to highlight the proverbial call-to-arms: the author’s issue to their readers “We believe our classrooms and libraries can be safe places for students (and teachers) to learn how to navigate these potential minefields—but only if we step up as defenders of truth” (pg 130). 

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