What Information Do We Trust in an Age of Fake News?

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When applying the elements of argument to today’s headlines, once a claim is clear, a second critical step is to consider the support available for that claim. Support can take the form of factual evidence, or it can take instead the form of appeals to needs and values. Most often, in a strong argument, it does both. The growing amount of fake news, however, has made it more necessary than ever to consider the source and validity of support for an argumentative claim.

We now know something of the extent to which news posted on social media from Russian accounts shaped the presidential election of 2016. One recent article in Newsweek was revealingly entitled “If You Shared One of These Tweets During the 2016 Election Then You Were Duped by Russian Fake News.” One example was a tweet that said, erroneously, that in the 22 days following Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem, 68 people had been killed by police officers. It was the same sort of impetus that made some people believe that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex ring being run out of pizza parlor in Washington. In the Newsweek article, Twitter is said to have just last week updated its reporting to say that “more than 50,000 Russian-linked accounts had used its service to post automated propaganda designed to exacerbate U.S. divisions.” Twitter has been told to inform “677,775 Americans that they may have liked, retweeted or followed a Russian government-backed account during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in November, Facebook officials reaffirmed that “Russian trolls spent $100,000 to promote ads on Facebook during the 2016 election, and . . . that posts created by these trolls reached 126 million Americans—more than a third of the US population.” At that hearing, it was made clear also that the number and type of Facebook ads varied with the state being targeted.

We realized some time ago that we must teach our students to analyze the validity of the sources that they use in their writing. Some of those who were tricked into believing and passing on “news” manufactured by the Russians—or others—were older Americans relatively new to social media who were never taught to think critically about electronic media. We all like to see our opinions reinforced in print or online, and it’s easy to send along the “dirt” on a candidate we don’t like without considering it too critically, but the very ease with which an idea can permeate social media led to a proliferation of fake news like never before. Too often we passed along what we wanted to think was true.

If a “troll factory” in St. Petersburg controlled the propaganda appearing on our computer screens, American consumers controlled what was done with that propaganda.  The Russians must have been thrilled at Americans’ willingness to fall right in line with their plans to influence the course of American history. Apathy led millions of Americans to not even vote; gullibility led those who did to too often vote based on flawed or totally false information.

When we construct our own arguments in support of what we believe, we bear the burden of providing legitimate support for the claims that we advance. We take the easy way out when we too readily believe anything that flashes across our screens. Getting at the truth can be hard work. Getting others to accept the truth has become even harder than ever in a society where the term “fake news” has become, ironically, code for “anything I don’t want people to believe.”

Image Source: "Fake News - Person Reading Fake News Article" by Mike MacKenzie on Flickr 8/22/16 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.