Blog Post

Misinformation in Online News: Post-Workshop Reflections

Image of workshop event flyer

The issue of misinformation in online news has been particularly visible of late, as public discourse responds to developments in American politics such Donald Trump’s dismissal of dissenting journalism as “fake news” and the Russian manipulation of Facebook content targeting American voters during the last election. Emilie Jabouin and I have taken up this issue in our work as HASTAC scholars. How can we encourage students (and colleagues) to hone their online information literacy? In August, we hosted a Twitter chat on this topic (#HASTACmisinfo), which Emilie summarized in a previous HASTAC blog post. At the beginning of October, we followed up with a workshop held at our home institution, Ryerson University, in Toronto, Canada. In this post, I’ll outline the workshop content, reflect on how it went, and conclude by inviting other HASTAC folks to comment on issues raised and poach our materials if they, too, are keen to address this topic in their academic communities. 

Workshop Goals

Intending the workshop primarily for an undergraduate audience (although other members of our institutional community were welcome), our fundamental goal was to foster participants’ online news literacy—their ability to recognize online news misinformation and its consequences. In doing so, we hoped to help students enhance and take confidence in their own ability to assess the materials they read, synthesize, and share online. We also encouraged participants to consider ways in which they might, as advocates and activists, foster awareness of misinformation and its consequences.

Workshop Structure: Questions

The workshop, like the Twitter chat, was organized around a series of questions about specific facets of online misinformation:

  1. What is misinformation in online news?
  2. How do you feel about your ability to identify biased or fake news?
  3. How do you identify online news that is strongly biased and/or reports misinformation?
  4. Once you’ve identified serious bias or misinformation in a news item, what do you do with that?
  5. What can we do about misinformation in online news as a widespread issue?

In presenting chiefly open-ended questions, we sought to facilitate participant-centered conversation without letting discussion slide into a complaint-fest about fake news, the most visible manifestation of online misinformation in recent months. We posed each question to participants, offering our own thoughts after everyone in our small group had a chance to respond. Ample blank space on our presentation slides presented a platform for taking notes on the discussion; this served as a way of affirming contributions and distilling key ideas that emerged.

Workshop Structure: Case Studies

The last three guiding questions were intended to encourage moving beyond reflection to productive action within—and then beyond—the workshop space. Participants engaged with question 3, “How do you identify online news that is strongly biased and/or reports misinformation?,” through an activity in which they used a debunking guide to analyze a recent piece of online news. We pre-selected the assorted guides and news examples that participants chose from. Guides included the WNYC Breaking News Consumer Handbook, Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and the “four moves” for online literacy developed by Mike A. Caulfield. Although they range in length, each guide is a relatively short, concise list of tips or strategies with which to evaluate a news item. The case studies from online news ranged from the fairly mundane clickbait of a local news outlet to pseudoscience mobilized by the infamous Alternative News. Because our workshop group was small, participants worked alone on their case studies and then we regrouped to each summarize our findings in turn and compare notes on the usefulness of our respective debunking guides. A final phase of this activity was omitted for lack of time, but worth undertaking in a future reiteration of the course. This portion involved applying the debunking techniques we’d just used to study a more complex case study that deployed nuanced rhetorical strategies to blur the divide between opinion and fact. The case study was a news video accompanied by a brief article; participants could watch the video and then reflect on strategies used to present information in the video and the implications of the piece. 

On the Politics of Teaching and Learning about Misinformation Online

In our workshop preparations and facilitation, Emilie and I were careful not to assume that all workshop participants would hold the same political and personal views. We sought to avoid ideological critique, which can be a tricky balance when looking at more nuanced misinformation leveraged by political groups. However, our discussion was not politically neutral, because we wished to emphasize that misinformation in online news it is often used to reinforce systemic power relationships that marginalize and harm specific groups, such as immigrants and people of colour. Our workshop conversation strayed into political debate at one point when participants took different positions on the extent to which an individual is responsible for educating others about online misinformation. Feeling that this ethical question of civic duty was worth considering, but could not be resolved, I eventually intervened and redirected discussion. Critiquing the ideologies that people support through misinformation or the ethical values that underwrite indifference to misinformation’s political effects was a bit beyond our purview. That being said, to study online misinformation without investigating its relationship with different types of ideologies is to constrain the scope of this issue in a way that I believe practical for a general introduction to defining and identifying misinformation in online news, but would ultimately prevent a robust understanding of how and why misinformation is so pernicious online. I welcome thoughts that HASTAC folks have on this matter: can we teach online information literacy without delving a little or a lot into its politics? Should we? This is particularly challenging when outlets such as Breitbart offer the most visible case studies in online new misinformation. It’s not just the far-right news platforms that heavily spin their news reportage to support their championed ideologies. But then, if it is the most radical outlets that most blatantly circulate misinformation, does that not deserve attention when teaching students about misinformation in online news? 

Reflections and Takeaways

Outcomes that we were happy with: participants offered astute insights and generated a stimulating discussion of this issue (you can check out a summary of this discussion documented on our Google Slides). We introduced methods for debunking misinformation that some participants hadn’t previously come across. And Ryerson community members who weren’t able to attend still engaged with the presentation materials and resources that we posted online after the event concluded.

Opportunities to improve: First, we anticipated a largely undergrad group (reflecting the makeup of the Ryerson community), but instead, our attendees came from graduate and faculty ranks. This made for a very different level of discussion. We hoped that undergrads would attend because, in our eyes, they would benefit the most, but we were mistaken in assuming that graduate students or faculty would be less interested in improving their ability to discern online misinformation and discuss its ramifications.

Second, overall turnout was low. This raises a matter unrelated to our workshop topic but pertinent to all you HASTAC Scholars out there: the importance of event promotion. Emilie and I circulated emails across campus, reached out to a research centre and a student group, promoted the workshop through Slack and Twitter, and shared it on Facebook. However, there was a significant gap between RSVP numbers on Facebook and actual attendance. In hindsight, we should have asked the students’ union to promote the event and perhaps held our workshop in their space, rather than in a more out-of-the-way location in the library. Let this serve as a reminder to y’all: make sure your event is as visible to your target audience as possible, and make attending so easy and inviting that not showing up is the harder option. Get in touch with major groups on campus that will support or promote your event, such as the learning centre or students’ union.

Final Thoughts

At the very least, we have a growing corpus of resources and materials for future workshops on this topic. You are most welcome to use them and add to them! The presentation slides, which include key points from discussion, are on Google at bit.ly/2xd5JrM. View our growing list of resources and initiatives founded to address this issue at bit.ly/2vK2rdS. Let us know what you think. I invite your reflections on our workshop, and on the topic of teaching online literacy, in the comments. Have you taught this subject? Have you slipped it into course content or led a workshop? What was your experience?

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