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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Policy & Politics Opinion

Are You Contributing to Truth Decay?

By Peter DeWitt — January 24, 2021 6 min read
Fake News

A few days ago, I sat down to watch the Social Dilemma on Netflix. I had heard friends talking about it and saw other friends posting on social media that they watched it. It was a strange juxtaposition to watch a docudrama about social media a few days after the siege on the Capitol.

Much of the information was not new. In 2011, I showed a powerful Ted Talk by Eli Pariser called Beware of Online Filter Bubbles at one of our faculty meetings when I was a principal. Both the Ted Talk by Pariser and the docudrama on Netflix have the same underlying premise, which is that there are online algorithms that control what we see and what we do not see when engaging in online searches.

Pariser presented a story focusing on how he and a friend did a Google search side by side using the same topic, and each received results that were vastly different. The reason this happens, of course, is due to the fact that every single time we search for a topic online, view a product on Amazon, or like someone’s post on social media, it adds to the algorithm that controls what we see every time we are online.

For the longest time, it seemed OK if this was solely about products we searched for because it meant that our searches were catered to our wants and needs. It made it easier to see products we may want to buy, but where the “Social Dilemma” takes a turn toward the negative is that all of what we see online is a marketing scheme to get our attention and money.

And those search results prevent us from seeing the whole story.

What About Politics?

We are in a destructive time when it comes to politics. Many will tell you that it’s no longer a political choice but a moral one. We need not look any further than the siege on the Capitol for a prime example of the moral umbrella our politics fall under. Most people seemed devastated by the siege, and then in the days following, we heard from politicians who stood up for the protestors, and we started to see friends on social media who tried to point blame in other directions.

So many seem not to make their own moral decision without checking in with their political party first.

How does that happen? How can people have such different political views that are ultimately moral views as well? Some of it is due to racism. Whether overtly or subconsciously, there are those people around the country who are racist or have a bias that they either ignore or do not know exists within them.

And then there are others who lack an understanding of facts and believe what they see on social media as a fact when it may be nothing more than a conspiracy theory. After all, even after numerous recounts and dismissed court cases, 64 percent of Republicans believe that the presidential election was ripped unfairly out of their hands.

And it all goes back to the underlying theme from the “Social Dilemma” and Eli Pariser’s very relevant Ted Talk from 10 years ago. People only see the news that is catered to them. Regardless of whether we are talking about social media or mainstream media. All of this is contributing to our own national decay of the truth, and it seems like we will never get it back. It feels as though all common sense is lost.

Huguet et al. (2018) write,

In 2016, researchers at the RAND Corporation began exploring what is now referred to as Truth Decay—the diminishing role that facts, data, and analysis play in our political and civil discourse. The rise of Truth Decay has been brought on, at least in part, by an increasingly complex and saturated information ecosystem. Navigating this environment to complete even simple tasks requires many skills, such as the ability to evaluate sources, synthesize multiple accounts into coherent understanding of an issue, understand the context of communications, and responsibly create and share information (Read the full report here).

Besides the algorithms that contribute to this truth decay, there is something equally as powerful that contributes to it as well. That other contributor is our confirmation bias.

If someone does not like former President Trump, then many times the negative news about him that they click on, even if it is false, is something they believe because it contributes to their feeling that he has been the worst president in U.S. history. And yes, I understand that he provided many opportunities to bring about those feelings as well. However, some stories contributed to visceral reactions on the part of the reader that were unnecessary.

Republicans have the same issue. They hear negative news, that may be unfounded, about Vice President Harris and President Biden, and believe that negative news because their feeling is that the election was rigged. This feeling continues long after countless court cases and recounts have proven otherwise.

Or, when someone on social media makes a claim that Antifa infiltrated the “peaceful” protestors and were ultimately the ones who broke into the Capitol and created destruction, they instantly believe it because there is just no way that Republicans would storm the Capitol. After all, they’re Patriots.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to find unbiased news, and most times we won’t look for the unbiased news anyway. Too often we all watch the news or click on the stories that will tell us what we want to hear because we know all too well that the major news networks are either liberal or conservative, as is all of their investors.

The Need for Media Literacy

Huguet et al. (2018) write,

At its core, ML is made up of several specific competencies, such as the abilities to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate media messages in a variety of forms. Experts and organizations typically define ML using these or similar collections of competencies, which in the past two decades have evolved to focus more on the active construction of media and participation in the information ecosystem.

The interesting fact is that most adults will shout that students need to be taught media literacy in school, but the reality is that many adults need a few courses on media literacy, and many of those adults in need of the education also happen to be school leaders and teachers. Adults are constantly promoting misinformation through their social-media pages.

Huguet et al. (2018) go on to write,

Central to ML is the notion that all media are constructed for a purpose and contain embedded biases or filters. ML education teaches participants to consider the implications of message construction from numerous angles, such as how the motivations of those disseminating information could influence content selection and framing and how different kinds of media and other technologies affect the nature of communication.

In the End

The facts are there. We are not all getting the same information, because the information we are getting is catered to our “likes” and searches on social media and Google. In order not to contribute to truth decay, we need to understand the motivations of those “disseminating information” and triangulate the data we are receiving to make sure that we are not guilty of confirmation bias.

Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment and due to our implicit or explicit biases, not all adults take the time to step back to reflect on whether what they are reading is valid because they are too concerned about positing their opinion in the heat of the moment just to stick up for their side.

A Seat at the Table.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, at 2:00 pm EST, Peter’s guest on A Seat at the Table will be Alice Huguet and Jennifer Kavanagh, authors of “Truth Decay.” Register here for the live event or to receive the on-demand version after it airs.

Huguet, A.; Kavanagh, J.; Baker, G.; Blumenthal, M. (2018). Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay. Rand Corporation.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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