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Communication studies course focuses on fake news phenomenon

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College students in one of Josh Hawthorne’s classes spent the first half of the fall semester studying the new phenomenon of “fake news.”

An assistant professor in the College’s department of communication studies, Hawthorne defined fake news as “strategic disinformation.”

“It accomplishes specific strategic goals,” said Hawthorne, who joined Monmouth’s faculty last year. “It is designed to sway public opinion – to cloud truths and to raise doubts – such as during the 2016 presidential election, which is when we really saw it emerge.”

“Initially, I signed up for the course because the term ‘fake news’ was one that I heard often but didn’t know the concrete definition,” said Brittanie Parker ’18 of Washington, Ill. “I’ve learned that fake news is a huge problem and it continues to grow and warp our own ideas to fit an agenda.”

She said what makes it even harder to defend is that “a large number of people can’t identify real from fake news. Less than 45 percent of Americans between the ages of 10 and 18 said they could accurately spot fake news.”

“We hoped the media would be gatekeepers of the news, but we are being lied to and tricked by people we thought we could trust,” said Hawthorne. “The best lies always start with a part of the truth, and then something is made up and attached to it.”

One of the reasons fake news works, said Hawthorne, is the way media works today. Long gone are the days of a single nightly newscast at 5:30 p.m. that was the chief source for receiving information about current events.

“Our current media involvement makes it easier to spread fake news,” he said. “The system is gamed through algorithms, which can post and re-post stories over and over again. That makes it easier for them to trend, and the stories start picking up steam. That’s how it can get amplified.”

Hawthorne said the news we read on Facebook is an example.

“(Spreading fake news) is not something that Facebook wanted to do, but that’s the ramification of algorithms that give us things we are prone to like – stories that make us feel ‘right.’ Social science research shows that we are drawn to that. They’ve built us the echo chamber machine, although not on purpose.”

“Social media feeds into this problem because it makes fake news so easily accessible,” said Parker. “You can log onto just about any media outlet and see fake news being shared. It’s scary. Personally, I think in order to overcome fake news we need to target individuals under 25 who are using social media as their (main) form of news. We need to educate this audience on how to spot fake news and the dangers that occur when spreading it.”

That was the thinking behind the class projects for some of Hawthorne’s students, who created a video series and public service announcements to spread awareness. Although the eight-week class ended prior to fall break, some of the projects will be ongoing, including sending versions of the PSAs to other college campuses.

“We can choose our media,” said Hawthorne, alluding to some of the messaging his students created. “We can make sure we’re serving counter-attitudinal information into our media diet. ... We need to check out the other side, too, and go after and consume multiple sources of information.”

Hawthorne’s students now adhere to the “CRAP” system when considering a news story, taking into account the keywords current, reliable, authority and purpose, or point of view.

Hawthorne said it is important, now more than ever, for consumers of news to “put our preconceived beliefs apart from what we’re reading and hearing, to figure out what’s truth, and to admit what we don’t know.”

Riley Hess ’18 of University Place, Wash., knows the solution won’t be easy.

“We can overcome it, but it is not as simple as blocking somebody on Twitter,” said Riley Hess. “It would take schools teaching media literacy, the education of peripheral cues, and the overall ability to be open minded towards differing views of a situation accused of being fake news. This process will take a generation of education and practice.”