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Foiling fake news: why the world needs reading

By Kobo • April 02, 2019Open Your Mind

Fake news is the hundred-million-dollar problem that tech companies are desperate to solve.

Recently, Google announced it will enable journalists to tag misleading stories as part of an ongoing, $300-million campaign against misinformation. And the search engine behemoth isn’t alone; last month, Facebook cracked down on pages and ads that promoted falsities about vaccines, while Apple pledged its support to media literacy organizations in the United States and Italy. Together, these initiatives represent an industry-wide push to eliminate so-called “alternative facts” from some of the web’s most popular platforms.

But will these efforts alone solve the problem? While fact-checking and article-tagging treat the symptoms of fake news, they don’t confront the underlying disorders that make it a threat to the health of democracies everywhere. Discrediting and even removing offending sites from top search results doesn’t address why readers believe and disseminate these stories in the first place.

Media literacy education programs are more effective, as they teach participants to develop and exercise critical thinking skills. But these lessons alone can’t combat the alienation and skepticism that allow fake news to proliferate. As Axios’s Erin Ross writes, “When it comes to entrenched false beliefs (like, say, that human-caused climate change isn’t happening, or the Earth is flat), it can be much harder to change someone’s mind.” Reasonable thought can only overcome deception when it comes from a place of compassion and solidarity.

What's the solution?

So how can we learn to practice empathy, think critically, and build community, all in the name of keeping inaccurate information from spreading? One answer lies with another form of the written word: books.

Whether we’re reading about far-flung futuristic fantasy lands or the history of our own hometowns, books do more than just tell us stories. When we fall for a misleading article, it’s often because it appeals to our preconceived notions about the world around us. Psychologists refer to this as motivated reasoning, the idea that we judge new information based on our deep-seated opinions. By exposing us to new perspectives, worldviews and ideas, books force us to move away from motivated reasoning and empower us to consider the world from a place of empathy. As acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman puts it, “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know … You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

Flexing critical thinking muscles

Experiencing the world from different outlooks is also a crucial element of critical thinking, one that’s recently become undervalued. Last year saw the release of a study from the Reboot Foundation, an organization that promotes critical thinking in education. In a piece for Forbes outlining the research, founder Helen Lee Bouygues wrote that “… there’s a lot of research—along with a solid dose of common sense—which shows that listening to various points of view helps people reason through issues.” Yet the study itself found that only 25 per cent of respondents would willingly debate someone on the other side of an issue, while only 20 per cent of U.S. parents sought to expose their children to differing points of view.

Books offer an important corrective to these trends. After all, how many Canadian schoolchildren first learned about life in Afghanistan by reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, or experienced the poverty of the Great Depression through John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? In allowing readers to be someone else and see a different part of the world through new eyes, books offer diverse viewpoints that enhance critical thinking skills.

Building community through books

Reading doesn’t just generate empathy and critical thinking skills, though. It can also help us develop friendships from a shared love for the written word. Think about all the people who made lifelong connections to fellow Harry Potter fans at conventions, or formed bonds around the beloved Anne of Green Gables books. These communities don’t just enrich our lives—they can also protect us from fake news. A 2017 Princeton University study found that those suffering from isolation and social exclusion are more likely to fall victim to conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation. In addition to conveying stories that generate empathy, books allow us to form social groups that put that empathy into practice. This makes us less prone to isolation, and therefore less susceptible to deceptive articles.

Ultimately, the war against fake news can’t be fought on a single front. Penalizing misleading websites alone won’t help us develop the traits we need to become more reasonable, informed citizens. Instead, we must build upon the skills that literature and non-fiction books offer us: the abilities to think rationally, empathize frequently, and rely on community. While no society can be completely free of misinformation, a well-read one can make fake news far less dangerous.

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