How trial and error, not coddling, taught me how to recognize fake news
Last year, I got totally bamboozled by a fake news story.
In my defence, I’m usually great at catching on to when something is fake/satire. Nowadays, I check sources, cross reference, and refuse to share a news story until I’m sure about what kind of news it is. But on August 11, 2017, I woke up, started scrolling through Facebook, and came across this:
I instantly believed it. I know, in retrospect I was a complete idiot. But I had just woken up and my sleep-addled brain fell for it. I don’t tend to share things on social media, or even like people’s posts. That day was no different, though I did tell my mom and sister about the story. Neither of them believed it, of course. But even after I clicked the post and went onto their website, I was still confident it was real.
It’s ridiculous that I fell for this satiric story, but how many others did, too? In what ways can this post be perceived as believable? And why exactly did I end up falling for it?
You just don’t know
Maybe you’re young and you haven’t gone out a lot. Maybe English isn’t your first language, or you don’t know the geographic layout of Vancouver well. Most native speakers know that cougar can mean an animal or an older woman who fancies younger men. Most city slickers don’t know how impossible it is for a cougar to get all the way to Granville Street. People who club every weekend are probably aware that The Roxy is known as a cougar bar.
You need this kind of basic knowledge to immediately pass off this article as satire if you first saw it in a little shared block of text on your Facebook page. This is something that Mike Caulfield discusses in “Yes, Digital Literacy. But Which One?”
If you don’t have this innate knowledge of things, though, you’d want to look at the article more closely. I know that Caulfield claims that “it’s not by doing something, it’s by knowing something” we can reach a conclusion as to whether or not something is fake news. But I think that’s ridiculous. We need to do research and fact-checking if we want to gain knowledge. We don’t just inherently know everything when we age, as he implies. To check a source, all you need is a chunk of time and the ability to type things into Google.
The first thing I did that morning after seeing the article and telling my mom and sister was Google “Cougar attack Vancouver.” When nothing other than the Burrard Street Journal immediately showed up, then I got suspicious. I didn’t have to paste the link into Snopes (which wouldn’t have worked anyway because Snopes didn’t cover this site).
After being questioned on whether or not this was real, I simply had to stop, think, and wake up a bit more to find the answer.
Let’s look closer
If we wanted to pick apart this article further, there are simple steps we could take. It’s a fairly recent article, and it looks like it’s from a reliable news source, the Burrard Street Journal. But even looking slightly closer at that, you can see that a shorter form of that would be the BS Journal which should send off red flags.
Clicking on the article takes you to their site (which, coincidentally, has almost the exact same layout as one of my favourite news sites). You might notice the article has hyperlinks, but each one leads to a disclaimer that the journal is all satire. This is stuff that I could easily catch if I wasn’t still half asleep. Also, Justin Trudeau standing beside a sign that says “Welcome to Peopleitoba” seems a bit sketchy, too.
“In reality, most literacies are heavily domain-dependent, and based not on skills, but on a body of knowledge that comes from mindful immersion in a context,” Caulfield says.
But I didn’t really need to mindfully immerse myself in anything. I clicked two things to get the answer I needed. That’s a skill, not some wisdom I could have only acquired if I was an old man. He also says that “It’s by learning [digital literacy] on a granular level that we form the larger understandings.” Look, Caulfield, I don’t have time to learn anything on a granular level anymore; I have a full-time job and take three university classes. Every day, I make mistakes and learn from them. That’s all I have time to do.
I was sleep deprived (what’s new?)
The first thing many people do when they wake up is go on their phone. 66% of them are young people aged 18 to 24, according to a survey done by ReportLinker. Of course, many people wake up groggy. If they’re picking up their phone and scrolling through Facebook, there’s a high chance they’ll come across a shared news story. (Or at least there was a high chance before the algorithm changed. More on that below.)
This was me last year. I wasn’t lacking some sort of incredible wisdom. I was just tired, as many of us are. A recent Aviva study reported on by Global News and CTV News tells me that Canada is the world’s third most sleep-deprived country.
Why we can’t have nice things
It’s no surprise that after Trump won the election and people started pointing fingers at who was resposible, Mark Zuckerberg decided to bundle up Facebook families into little isolated homesteads and cut them off from news with his new algorithm. Instead of posting a simple list of precautions someone should take before sharing a news story as real, he cut us off from news altogether, and now all I can see on my feed are my Hungarian relatives selling their furniture and petting their dogs.
Sure, it’s crazy that people believe some of the crazy stories that are being spread across the web. Maybe everyone’s just too tired and busy to check if a news story is real or not. Or maybe it’s just that “between reality and the bubble of fantasy news stories, these are tough times for satirists,” as a Maclean’s article describes.
Satire is a powerful way to ridicule society. In some ways, it can be just as important as any other news. But when we read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in class, people thought that Swift was serious about eating babies. Why? My guess is that people have been exposed to so much news, fake and real, and a lot of the fake stories are just as ridiculous as the real. I mean, how can this possibly be real?
I can imagine Swift turning over in his grave.
Reality is ridiculous. And so are fake news stories. But I still want to read both. Now that we’re aware that misinformation can be spread around just as quickly as information, we need to be able to look at both and think critically about which is which. I don’t want Facebook to censor news from me. I want all kinds of news popping up on my feed so every article I come across can be a critical thinking challenge.
I also don’t want to be told that I need to study how to recognize which is which on a “granular level.” All I need to be told is think before I share. Be critical. I don’t want to be coddled by Facebook or walked through digital literacy one baby step at a time. I need to learn these things myself. We all do, even if it’s through trial and error.
America already elected a yam to hold office. We are more aware of fake news now than ever before because of this event. I shared fake news with two people before I realized it was false. I was ridiculed. But I’m glad I thought a real cougar walked into a Vancouver bar a year ago, or else I never would have learned how to be diligent about fake news.
Caulfield, Mike. “Yes, Digital Literacy. But Which One?” Hapgood, 19 Dec. 2016, hapgood.us/2016/12/19/yes-digital-literacy-but-which-one/.
Joseph, Rebecca. “Canada Third Most Sleep-Deprived Country: Study.” Global News, Corus News, 29 Oct. 2016, globalnews.ca/news/3033503/canada-third-most-sleep-deprived-country-study/.
ReportLinker. “For Most Smartphone Users, It’s a ‘Round-the-Clock’ Connection.” ReportLinker Insight, ReportLinker, 26 Jan. 2017, www.reportlinker.com/insight/smartphone-connection.html.
The Associated Press. “Is Satire Still Possible in an Era of Fake News?” Maclean’s, Rogers Media, 1 Feb. 2017, www.macleans.ca/society/is-satire-still-possible-in-an-era-of-fake-news/.
The Burrard Street Journal. “Panic At Vancouver Nightclub As Wild Cougar Wanders In Forcing Evacuation.” The Burrard Street Journal, 8 Aug. 2017, www.burrardstreetjournal.com/vancouver-cougar-attack-shock-in-nightclub/.