Fake News: A Threat To Democratic Society

This is part of a News-Decoder series on fake news.

By Nelson Graves

Fake news matters because it goes right to the heart of democracy.

“If we can no longer trust the information that we receive online, then one of the main pillars of journalism and our democratic society would have suffered a mortal blow,” said Reuben Loewy, a teacher at Princeton Day School.

Loewy, who founded the Living Online Lab curriculum for navigating the digital world, was speaking at the start of a recent News-Decoder webinar devoted to fake news.

The above video captures snippets from that webinar and two others organized with Global Online Academy.

Students were front and center during each of the webinars — consistent with News-Decoder’s mission to offer a platform for expression to young people around the world.

fake news

The burning Reichstag, Berlin, 27 February 1933. The Nazis manipulated the event to consolidate power. (Wikimedia Commons)

In one webinar, Princeton Day School students led by News-Decoder ambassador Elaynah Jamal and History teacher Christian Rhodes offered three different proposals for tackling fake news — government oversight, a search engine algorithm and a free-market, laissez-faire approach.

Students at Greens Farms Academy and Indiana University critiqued each proposal, offering respectful observations in line with News-Decoder’s mission to foster civil dialog.

Each of the webinars featured experts in the field: Loewy; Peter Bale, president of the Global Editors Network;¬†and Prof. Elaine Monaghan of Indiana University’s Media School.

“Fake news, fake stories have always been about. I think the difference now is the speed at which this information can circulate,” Bale said.

Monaghan underscored the challenge facing ethical journalists and the elusiveness of truth: “Journalists are not trying to tell the truth. They are trying to find it.”

Students at Savannah Country Day School, which hosted one of the webinars, asked a series of penetrating questions:

  • Does fake news change people’s minds or just act as a confirmation of what one already believes?
  • What are the possible impacts on society of individuals believing in incorrect or fake news?
  • How can an average person know who to trust and how much one can trust them?
  • Are there any examples of times when fake news, propaganda or disinformation brought down or undermined governments?

“Tony Blair in the UK was most definitely brought down by his, either accidental or deliberate, manipulation of intelligence to take us to war in Iraq,” Bale said, referring to the former British prime minister.

Christine Bessias, a teacher at Durham Academy who facilitated the Global Online Academy mini-course on fake news that drew more than 1,200 students, had the last word:

“Truth does exist. It exists in journalism, in government, in science, in business, in whatever walk of life you find yourself in. And you’ll be reminded that truth exists whenever you encounter its opposite.”

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