Fake News, and how to escape it
A game: Choose a word at random, the more innocuous the better, things like ‘salad’ and ‘robots’ work well. Then take the sentence ‘Can … kill you’, and insert your word. Head over to the website of popular right wing newspaper that shall not be named and put your Frankenstein sentence into their search engine. The results are good fun, the two sentences above yield results that inform me that “it is ALREADY too late to ban killer robots’” and that “the SALAD DRAWER is putting your family at risk”. Those are their capitals not mine by the way.
I sometimes work with a-level media students, and we play this game at the end of our sessions. After the first couple of weeks they start coming along with words they want to try – I am suspicious that they have often taken a look before the session to find something particularly amusing, but we all pretend we are discovering them for the first time. The incredulity of these 16 and 17 year olds quickly turns to cynicism, it only takes a few weeks before they can successfully predict the types of stories they are going to see. Being a responsible educator I do try to steer clear of profanity, but we have a caveat when we are playing the game, we call it what it is, bullshit.
Something interesting happens though, and it has happened every time I have played this game with a student for more than a few weeks, eventually, after they have worked out the pattern, they ask one of the most important questions of their media education “if these stories are bullshit, does that mean they are all bullshit?”. It is a long-winded way of teaching that not everything you read is true, relevant or worthwhile. From there we start the long process of deconstructing media texts, asking questions like ‘why was this written’, ‘who benefits from this’ and ‘how do they convey their ideas’. It is a lot less fun than the game, but by the end of the year, as well as learning everything else they need for their A-level (they can usually write a killer case study, and have a pretty good understanding of the word ‘postmodernism) their bullshit detectors are finely tuned instruments, at least when it comes to the media. They are so finely tuned in fact that they don’t just identify the obvious (“British supermarket jihadi reveals Jaffa Cakes and fish fingers are the only things he misses since leaving the UK…” is the headline you’ll get if you try “can fish fingers kill you?”) but they can also identify media bias, discrimination, sexism, racism and any of the other isms which our popular media is shot through with.
Whatever your stance on the outcomes, the outsized role of the media in the recent brexit vote, or the election of Donald Trump is undeniable. Within this the role of new media, that ethereal catch term all we use to talk about social media and everything else that isn’t a TV network, film or newspaper, is especially noticeable. What is immediately obvious to the students I work with is that this new media serves as a sort of bullshit echo chamber, amplifying the most ridiculous tales to levels previously only dreamed of by even the most persistent media oligarchs.
The game becomes especially interesting when it goes from identifying bullshit to asking why it is happening. Usually the answer is money, it’s as simple as bullshit sells, however when we move into the new media realm the reasons are less obvious. Unless you are very fortunate there is no financial ramification to your social media ramblings, and even some of the more ardent YouTube conspiracy theorists are likely not taking home enough at the end of each month to keep them stocked up on survival rations. But actually, why the media, and the rest of us humans engage with the bullshit echo chamber is because we like stories.
Narratives help us to make sense of the world, give us goals and common ground. The narratives which appeal most widely are the ones that seem to matter the most to the most people. Though it also helps if they are interesting (killer robots), out there (murderous salad drawers), or just plain scary (all people who are not British are evil). The exciting thing about the new media is that we have the ability now to at least feel like we are part of that narrative – it doesn’t necessarily follow though that we are shaping it, we’re often just along for the ride, motorcyclists riding the walls of the infinite bullshit echo chamber.
Stepping off is simple though, it doesn’t even take an a-level media degree to do it, although it will definitely help. There could be a sinister narrative here about the current government’s increasing persistence in removing just the types of subjects which switch on students bullshit detectors from the curriculum, but we try to keep away from such conspiracy theories. Playing the game is the first step towards stepping outside of the chamber and looking in. Laugh at what you see there then tell your friends about it, because the more people who are outside of the chamber looking in, the more ridiculous the clowns on the motorcycles look when they make claims that work only because there is an appealing narrative bubbling beneath them.