Brendan Nyhan is a professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College, a contributor to The Upshot at The New York Times, and a former media critic for the Columbia Journalism Review. He spoke with Jaimie Seaton about the importance of media literacy. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Question: You work seems to focus on the idea of fact checking and truth, not just the idea of fake news. Can you speak to this?
Answer: Whether citizens are well informed is a question that goes back to the beginning of democracy, and my interest in this question comes from my concern about the prevalence of misconceptions; things that people believe that are false or unsupported by the best available evidence.
The issue of what people know or think they know that isn’t true is one that extends well beyond so-called fake news. The term “fake news” has been re-purposed in a confusing way. The term “fake news” was originally used to describe 100 percent false stories circulated online by shady publishers for profit. The term was intended to describe this very specific type of 100 percent false content. It then extended to any kind of misinformation, and now is being used to describe news and information “I don’t like.”
No one knows what we’re talking about anymore. It’s important for everyone to be precise with terminology. We need to have a conversation about 100 percent fake news being produced for profit. We also need to have a conversation about misperceptions in politics and how people can deal with them more generally. Being specific about what we mean is critical to distinguishing these different though related problems. This is very much a problem that cuts across every demographic and political line.
Q: Why is critical thinking and media literacy important, specifically with students?
A: A lot of the information we all receive about politics and health and other issues that affect our lives comes via the Internet where there are fewer gatekeepers and quality indicators than other kinds of media. It’s important to help young people build good habits in thinking critically about the information they encounter, and whether to believe it.
Many people think about the issue of media literacy and critical thinking as a problem that pertains to other people. We are all vulnerable to misinformation, especially online. As human beings, it’s easy to be led astray by false things that appear to be true; because someone you know endorsed them, or they appear to confirm some point of view you already hold, or whatever the case may be. We’re all not just potentially victims of misinformation online, but perpetrators, because it’s so easy to disseminate misinformation further via social media and other sharing mechanisms.
Education is an area where I think the social consensus around how to address media literacy and misinformation is stronger than in politics. I think overwhelmingly we in our society think students should be taught how to be discriminating consumers of information online, and people generally trust their children’s teachers to help with that process. There’s a small but growing movement to incorporate media literacy into civic teaching curricula and other kinds of high school and college content, because it’s one of the most important skills we can provide people to prepare them to be citizens and participants in our democracy.
Q: At what age should the idea be introduced in the schools?
A: I’m not an educator and I defer to the teachers on that. I’m really focusing on downstream and the adult population.
Having said that, kids today are doing online research from a relatively early age compared to my childhood when the Internet was just becoming a useful resource. There are ways to introduce age-appropriate lessons about evaluating the information you find online. Even my elementary-age children may encounter information of different scientific quality when they’re researching the fox that lives in the forest, or whatever, and there may be ways to encourage them to think about whether this a quality source of information. Obviously, this gets more complicated as the subject matter gets more controversial. Building those habits of mind seems something you could do starting at an earlier age.
One important point I’d like to make is that there is a delicate balance between promoting critical thinking and causing people to mistrust every source of information. In some cases people are quite distrustful of the most reliable sources of information in our society. Examples are the scientific community as a whole, or official government statistics that are trusted across the ideological spectrum, and the most respected media outlets.
It’s not to say that those institutions are always correct, but levels of distrust can be exceptionally high of even the strongest evidence. The trick of teaching this kind of critical thinking is to cause people to reflect appropriately on what information is most reliable without causing them to distrust all sources of information.
If you think about the way people react to what they encounter, there are people who are too credulous, but there are also people who are much too skeptical. In some cases that’s going to depend on the issue and whether it seems to confirm what they want to be true, but in other cases there’s going to be a more general tendency to be too accepting or too skeptical.
Q: Regardless of the evidence, it seems that if people have a certain point of view, the evidence put in front of them not only doesn’t change their mind, but also can strengthen that point of view. How do we deal with that in relation to students?
A: This is the million-dollar question. I don’t know how to get people to trust information that they don’t want to hear, or to believe in institutions that are widely distrusted. It’s really hard.
You sometimes have to be specific about who you’re asking about or in what context. For instance, in the media, if you say “do you trust the media” Americans overwhelmingly say no. If you ask about a specific media outlet, there are many media outlets that people indicate higher levels of trust in. It’s complicated. It does seem like there are fewer institutions that attract a consensus of support across the ideological and partisan spectrum. There is no one trusted source in any issue domain that all sides agree is a dispassionate and accurate arbiter of the evidence.
Q: Do you think the problem has gotten worse over the years?
A: The policy landscape looks different than it did in the mid-20th century. It’s also important to say that the mid-20th century technocratic consensus was a kind of unusual period of American history. Much of American history looks more like now than it looks like the mid-20th century. Partisanship was relatively low by historical standards, and this was the so-called peak of objective media. The contrast between now and that period seems quite stark, but there have been lots of other periods that had a highly partisan press and very polarized parties. What’s happening now in some ways may be different than those prior periods, but it’s important not to forget that the mid-20th century was the exception rather than the rule.
The big change from then until now is that trust in government and other institutions has declined dramatically. That makes it hard to create a shared social reality. None of us can verify every piece of information that we’re presented with; we have to rely on social mechanisms of generating knowledge. As a society we need to produce knowledge and have it inform our public debate. The fear is that we won’t have a common factual basis on which to have a debate about these questions. In the past, people overstate the extent to which there was a debate based on facts. I’ve objected to “post-truth,” “post-fact” terminology because it creates nostalgia for a supposed golden age. You can go back historically and find all sorts of examples of debates in this period that people now romanticize that were not based on facts.
The danger is that in a highly partisan era, party’s inevitably going to come into play when an issue becomes controversial. At that point it becomes harder to have a debate based on facts. Our identities get in the way of our critical thinking skills.
Q: What does the future hold for students, and what do you think needs to be done?
A: I’m sure there is room for improvement in how we teach civics education. We need to experiment with this. The decentralized nature of American education allows for people to try a lot of different models and see what works.
I’m hopeful that there is room for curricular innovation. It’s going to be a slow process; it’s not a quick fix, and there is not a magic solution. In terms of education, this is not specific to media literacy or critical thinking. One of the comments I get most often is people thinking that misperceptions are a problem of a lack of education, and that’s not at all clear from the data.
I’m worried about people over-promising, that’s just a general note about education. We’ve had a cycle of hype and disappointment around civic education generally. We should be realistic about what we can achieve, and that’s not to be cynical or nihilistic. Positive steps can be taken; I don’t want to set unrealistic goals that will make effective educational achievements look like a failure.