LONDON: Is the world’s oldest man really 179 years old? Schoolchildren in Molenbeek, a district in Brussels, stare at the online news report on their classroom screen. Is the story true or fake? How can they tell?
Fake news is here to stay. Fake stories are usually better constructed and more fun than real news, so they attract eyeballs and advertisers. There will also always be political actors who benefit from fakes.
But since fake news hit public consciousness in 2016, we have learnt something about how to combat it. Initiatives to teach children “source literacy” have popped up in many countries; France has started a (voluntary) programme for schools. Education remains about a decade behind the internet, but it’s catching up. So, what works?
IDENTIFYING AND UNDERSTANDING FAKE NEWS
I visited Molenbeek with Lie Detectors, a Brussels-based NGO that sends journalists into schools. On this visit, Belgian journalist Valentin Dauchot is dispatched to a class of 10- and 11-year-olds. Most are of north African origin (though, in a very Belgian touch, there are boxes of waffles in a corner).
“On the internet,” Dauchot says, “not everything is false, but not everything is true either. Everything you read, you have to verify.”
Molenbeek, which was home to several of the jihadis who massacred 130 people in Paris in November 2015, has a bad name. Yet these children are model pupils.
For 90 minutes, they listen rapt, shouting out answers over-enthusiastically, even when another class starts jumping noisily in the snowy playground behind their window.
Dauchot, who has visited three schools in Molenbeek, finds kids here as sharp as those in richer neighbourhoods. Primary school children are a particularly rewarding crowd; conspiracy theories take root only in adolescence.
He shows the class three online articles: The 179-year-old man, a crocodile that supposedly escaped from a zoo into the Paris sewers and a €154,953 (US$178,057) bill for the Trump-Macron dinner in the Eiffel Tower.
First the children guess whether each story is true. Their votes are divided. When Dauchot reveals that all three articles are fake, there are cries of disbelief.
What were the clues? On screen, Dauchot magnifies the restaurant bill. “Why does it say, ‘14 caps’? Why buy those in a restaurant?” The crocodile story, on closer inspection, appeared on a joke website. (The banner ad offering plutonium at €28 per kg was a giveaway.) And if you google the 179-year-old man, you immediately find reports debunking the story.
“Why would someone write fake news?” asks Dauchot. “To earn money,” shouts a boy. “To deceive people,” says a girl. The kids understand this because most of them follow YouTube stars who use clickbait to grow their audiences.
In fact, Lie Detectors finds that children are often internet-savvier than teachers, and probably more so than old people. Two recent studies in the journals Science and Science Advances conclude that the over-65s are particularly likely to spread false information.
MORE THAN JUST DEBUNKING FAKE NEWS
Debunking fake news is only half the job. Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, founder of Lie Detectors, says at least as important is restoring trust in media. Ultimately, Dauchot’s visit to Molenbeek is an advertisement for journalism. He’s the first journalist most of these children have ever met.
Many adults never encounter any either. Since the internet destroyed the media’s economic model, local journalists in particular have grown scarce.
The physical assaults on journalists by France’s gilets jaunes express anger against a metropolitan profession many of whose members live behind screens, writing umpteen stories for 24-hour news sites, too busy to go out and meet ordinary people.
Dauchot’s mere presence shows the children that journalists don’t have horns. He also shows them how journalism works. “A journalist normally has to obey rules,” he explains.
When Dauchot writes an article, his colleagues check it for errors. When he makes an accusation, he gives the accused the right of reply. That isn’t true of most of the internet, where anyone can say anything unchecked.
Journalism will always be inexact and often wrong. After all, we cover the world in real time, and often write about people who are hiding things.
Von Reppert-Bismarck requires the journalists she sends into schools to describe mistakes that they’ve made. If we’re up front about our failings, readers’ trust won’t crumble when they find a mistake, and they won’t automatically assume manipulation.
She also recommends that media be explicit about their own biases. She praises the liberal New York Times for linking to analyses from high-quality rightwing publications. Journalism can never tell the whole truth but, to quote the author Julian Barnes, “43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent”.
“You are very connected,” Dauchot tells the children at the end.
You know more than I did at your age, when there were no smartphones. You go everywhere online, alone. So the only person who can really think and decide is?
“Moi!” the children chorus. Now it’s up to their teachers to continue the lesson.
© 2019 The Financial Times Ltd.