In this third episode on fake news, we've gathered all the very best practical tips and ideas from our experts to help you identify fake news. We'll guide you to finding your way through the massive amounts of news and information we see each day, how to identify misinformation and disinformation, and how to ensure you're getting the most objective, accurate and up to date information from your news sources.
TranscriptSusan Carland: Welcome back to What Happens Next?. We've been exploring the controversial issue of fake news. So, what can we as individuals do? In this episode, we've gathered all the tips from our experts to help people identify fake news and misinformation campaigns, and some ideas about how we can all contribute to a better informed society.
Here's Mark Andrejevic...
Mark Andrejevic: I'm Mark Andrejevic. I'm a professor of media studies in the School of Media Film and Journalism at Monash University, and I write about the social, cultural and political impact of digital media technology.
SC: Marc Andrejevic, what can individuals do? Apart from making sure I only get news from trusted, reliable sources, what else can we do?
MA: I mean, I think everything that we can do to foster a sense of understanding of interdependence and to find ways to reinforce the information on the practices that allow us to function in a democratic society, all of these things seem important. So, you know, little things. I think it's important, for example, when you're on social media, one thing that happens on social media is because engagement and sharing are, in a sense, content-neutral – and they're privileged.
If you share misinformation or disinformation, even to point out how wrong it is, you're actually contributing to its distribution online in ways that are perceived by the algorithmic systems as, ‘Oh, this person is interested in that’. And that particular story lots of people are interested in will make it trend.
So, in the US, one of the things that they found out after the school shooting of the students in Florida was a conspiracy theory video claiming that they were crisis actors, and that this is all staged as a political conspiracy to take people's guns away. That became the top-trending video on YouTube, not because people believed it, but because people were sharing it and saying, “Oh my God, have you seen this?”. So I think one thing, kind of deep platform-ing information stuff that's, you know, and and it's really tempting. And I'm sure I've done it, like, “Oh, can you believe that this is circulating online? Check this out.”
Don't do that, right? You know, find the ways to tamp down the spread of the misinformation or disinformation and, of course, find strategies for countering and asserting the practices and the information that contribute to understanding what's actually going on on.
That has to do, I think, with our social spheres. You know what do you do when you encounter somebody, a friend, who's a conspiracy theorist? How do you handle that? It’s not easy. I've been in those situations of conversations with conspiracy theorists. It's very tricky, you know – if you try to argue against them, you've automatically shown that you're a dupe, and that you're actually on the other side.
SC: How do we counteract things when facts don't matter? That's something I really struggle with. When you see someone post something, or share something – your lovely family member shares something insane in the family WhatsApp chat, and you go, “But do you know that here's all the evidence for why this is maybe not right?” – that, in and of itself, the facts are irrelevant. “I don't trust Big Pharma”, “I don't trust the government”, “I don't think everyone knows that that major outlet is blah, blah, blah.” How do you counteract when there is, it feels like, there's no common ground?
MA: It's not easy. I've been interested by the example of ... I don't know if you've seen him online, there's a US historian named Kevin Kruse, and he spent a lot of time engaging with Dinesh D’Souza, the kind of right-wing, you know, propagandist and and spreader of huge historical inaccuracies, huge conspiracies, and this historian, he's tried to correct D’Souza’s fake histories or inaccurate histories, and what he’s said is, “I don't have any illusions that I'm gonna convince D’Souza. I do this for the community of folks for whom it would be useful to have the actual historical information, so if they encounter this in their daily lives, they also have the facts.”
And I think that's an important thing to do. because, again, if you've ever encountered folks who go off on their conspiracy theories and inaccurate histories, they often have a quite well-developed story that they've picked up and rehearsed in chat rooms or conversations where they get this information, and it's useful and important, I think, to actually develop. Very often, it’s tempting to just dismiss them – “Oh you’re a conspiracy theorist.” I do think it's important to educate ourselves so that we have the historical knowledge, to the extent that we can get it, to tell a coherent, plausible counter-narrative that actually points out some of the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in those stories. And again, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to convince someone who doesn't believe in facts, but it's gonna fortify us with a clear understanding of the world, and give us the tools to communicate to others who might be more open to listening and understanding.
SC: So the observers who were following Dinesh, for example, who might actually be open to hearing the alternatives. You're not going to convince Dinesh, but however many thousands or millions of followers he has, when you respond and say, “Did you actually know that blah, blah, blah”, they'll be looking. So we're trying to actually convince the second-grade observers, I suppose, as opposed to the primary person.
MA: So hopefully there's somebody there among Dinesh followers who might be willing to listen. But it's also to create another community around Kevin Kruse of the people ... to bring them together, because one of the things that the conspiracy theory people have found online is that they can collect each other, whereas once they might have been more distributed.
SC: The kind of shaking their fist at the sky?
MA: Yeah, right, you know, doing their thing in kind of relative isolation. They've been able to build communities online, which gives their voice a certain strength. And the response also has to also build communities. So Kevin Kruse has built a huge following around debunking D’Souza. The danger there is, of course, you create increased polarisation. You end up with just two groups, who just refuse to listen to each other and automatically dismiss everything that they do. And that's a real danger. And I'm not sure, I don't have any way out of it.
My hope is that over time, eventually – and you see this hope all of the time – that in some sense, those who have a clearer, more accurate grasp of reality will be able to use how reality works to make it clear that their understanding actually is a more effective understanding than those whose understanding is fake or inaccurate or conspiratorial.
That's ... You see that hope all the time, like real events will bear. There's a time when the rubber hits the road, when the illusion of these people will have to confront reality. I don't know if that's ever gonna happen. I have to believe that to some extent, for some people, it will happen.
SC: Mark Andrejevic, thank you very much.
MA: My pleasure.
SC: Let's hear from Margaret Simons
Margaret Simons: I'm Margaret Simons, I'm a journalist and author, journalism academic, and also a board member of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative.
SC: Margaret Simons, what do you think the average person at home can do to make sure that they're getting reliable information, not fake news, but also, what can they do to be supporting public interest journalism beyond maybe just having a few subscriptions?
MS: Well, there are a number of proposals for addressing this crisis, which are out there at the moment, and which the Public Interest Journalism Initiative has been putting to the government. We also have an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which reported last year and that also made some recommendations. One of the recommendations from the ACCC included stable and increased funding for the public broadcasters, being SBS and ABC, and an improved grant scheme particularly focused on local journalism, and I know the government is looking at that.
What the Public Interest Journalism Initiative has suggested, in addition to that, is that there be a tax rebate given for investment in public interest journalism similar, for example, to the tax rebate that companies already get if they're investing in research and development more broadly, so we could look at having another tax rebate. We saw tax rebates work really well in our cultural industries 30 years ago for the film industry. And the great rebirth of the Australian film industry, which led to films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, and so on, was really founded on a system of tax rebates where people got tax-favourable treatment for investing in such films. We’re proposing that sort of system for journalism, and we've done some research which people could see on our website to have a look at that, and we will be doing more work on that.
Another thing that's been suggested, and so far not acted on by government, is to allow people to tax deduct philanthropic donations to journalism. So we already see some philanthropy in journalism. We've got the Judith Nielsen Institute, which gives grants for public interest journalism, and also The Guardian has had some contributions from various philanthropic trusts. The ACCC has suggested – and we support this – that those are able to be tax-deductible donations.
So far, the government has not responded to any of that. It’s looking at the grants scheme, as I mentioned earlier, but those policy proposals are out there, they’re not being suggested by lunatics or fringe-dwellers; it was the ACCC that suggested most of them, and they are there for any side of politics to pick up and further examine.
SC: Is there anything, beyond what we should be lobbying the government to do, which is obviously important? Is there anything just the average person on the street could do as an individual?
MS: Well, pay a subscription, to a quality journalism outlet, absolutely. And you know, value and understand what journalists do. And obviously lobby governments, of any colour – just talking isn't gonna do it in the short term – to also value journalism, and be prepared to consider public policy interventions to support it.
SC: Margaret Simons, thank you for joining us.
MS: It’s a pleasure.
SC: David Holmes has these tips.
David Holmes: I'm David Holmes, and I'm the Director of the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub (MCCCRH), which researches ways of building climate literacy in Australia for a broad range of audiences.
SC: David Holmes, thank you so much for joining us today. Do you have any tips for people who want to ensure they don't fall prey to fake news or disinformation campaigns? What can they do to improve their media consumption?
DH: So, I think any media outlet that has a kind of public interest charter, it should be in your newsfeed whether you're curating that through social media or going directly to it, I think. News outlets that also source a number of different sources so you've got a number of different lines of evidence, if you like, as well as news outlets that engage in investigative journalism, because they're more likely to have good research behind what they're telling audiences, and they take it seriously, because investigative journalism does cost more for the news organisation. So it means that they really do take public interest journalism seriously. And you're not just getting the sort of random soundbites about things just because it was convenient that they could get a quote from whoever. The more experts that are sourced, particularly on issues that really matter to people, is really important.
SC: Here's some advice from Johan Lindberg.
Johan Lidberg: My name is Associate Professor Johan Lidberg in the School of Media and Journalism at Monash University, and I’m also the Deputy Head of Journalism.
SC: Johan Lidberg, thanks so much for joining us.
JL: No, you're welcome.
SC: What can the average person at home do to try to improve the situation of misinformation, but also ensure that we do have good freedom of information laws in this country, or good freedom of information practice?
JL: Yes. So, the first thing is that everyone can become more media-literate. Start by watching Media Watch on ABC every single week. That's a really good start. You know, media literacy sounds like a very complex thing, and it is complex from a research point of view, but from an everyday person’s point of view, watching ABC’s Media Watch is a really good start, I would have thought, because they expose things that are shonky and wrong, but they also, I think, would make the layperson understand the media and the news better. So that's one thing they can do.
Number two is: Do not share stuff that you think is wrong. Just don't. Just decide to not do it.
And then I think there's a third thing, something that I did myself after Cambridge Analytica in 2016. I haven't deleted my Facebook account, but I'm not active anymore. And I've said I won't be active until they own up and take responsibility. I think you can keep telling them that, you know? And for a while there Facebook kept sending me Facebook memories, you know, acting like a forlorn lover and the like, and they kept it up for a year, and then they stopped. That, I thought, was interesting. The Al aggregator must have figured out that I didn't respond. Then, in terms of access to information, you’ve got to use it. You know, if we don't use our information systems, they wither and die. And so journalists try to use it, parliamentarians try to use it. The more everyone uses it, the more pressure we get on the decision-makers. So, yeah, be active.
SC: Johan Lidberg. Thank you so much for your time today.
JL: You're welcome.
SC: That's it for our look at fake news. We’ll be back with a new topic soon. Thanks to all our guests – Mark Andrejevic, Johan Lidberg, David Holmes and Margaret Simons.
More information on what we discussed today can be found in the show notes. And if you liked this episode, write us a five-star review. If you don't like the episode, we don't really want to hear from you! I'll catch you next time on What Happens Next?.
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