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Bonfire of the realities: how to spot fake news

Bonfire of the realities: how to spot fake news

Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the media have inspired a new strand of education. In recognition of the importance of knowing how to distinguish fact from fabrication in the remodelled information landscape of the Trump era, and in recognition of the communication methods used by the Alt-Right and which they in turn accuse the media of using, the University of Michigan is launching a new course, available in Autumn 2017, titled ‘Fake News, Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction’.

Any university course should encourage and foster critical thinking, but today’s students need extra preparation when it comes to verifying the credibility of their information sources, especially on social media, in an age where fake news is deliberately generated and disseminated by unscrupulous organisations and individuals, for financial gain through advertising or just for kicks.

The course, starting in the fall of 2017, is a one-credit primer in evaluating news sources, and could be just as important now as courses in research methodology and how to reference sources correctly. As more and more ‘news’ is consumed away from the peer-reviewed scholarly world, often via social media, students need to fine-tune their radar for questionable content and outright falsity. This course also challenges students to confront their own biases and consider how their own opinions can affect their interpretations of the news.

"We have really recognized an increase in the challenge students have sorting out fact from fiction, especially as they get so much news form friends and family," explained Doreen Bradley, a director with the library who helped develop the course along with the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.

"There is no right, there's no wrong, everyone just comes with a different perspective and it's important for students to recognize what the perspective is of what they're reading … It's the same thing we would do with scholarly information. We ask, 'Can you verify this in a couple other places or is it just one news source that's pushing this issue?'

The aim is to help students avoid living in an information bubble, whether of their own making or imposed on them by their social sphere, and to make them critical consumers of news rather than passive recipients.