Early in the COVID-19 crisis, photos began circulating that purported to show large gatherings of people who were protesting social distancing protocols. One image in particular showed a huge crowd gathered outside a convention centre. It was shared thousands of times on social media with the headline: March to End COVID-19.
The image was real, but the message was pure disinformation. The photo was actually taken in 2016, when fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers staged a parade to celebrate their team’s victory in the NBA finals.
Such examples are prime fodder for a course entitled Media Literacy, Critical Thinking and Investigative Journalism that Cecil Rosner [BA(Hons)/74] teaches through the University of Manitoba’s Extended Education program. Among the skills students learn from the veteran journalist: how to do reverse image searches, to look for previous versions of the same photo online.
“Such a search would have quickly debunked claims about this particular image, which has also been used in other contexts to falsely claim support for different causes,” says Rosner.
His trio of two-week sessions serves as a primer on how to accurately assess news reports and identify fake news. The public’s desire to get a better handle on decoding the truth in news reports became apparent to Rosner when he conducted an initial pilot version of the course this past spring.
“We had 22 or 23 students from all fields of life. Most of the participants were professionals. We had a physician, business instructors, librarians. Although they came from different backgrounds all were eager to find ways to better read the media,” says Rosner, who strives to give his students insights into the tools used by investigative journalists to find and filter information.
Rosner admits that the task of separating fact from fiction has become increasingly difficult. He should know. Rosner worked for 31 years at CBC, including a stint as executive producer of The Fifth Estate, CBC’s flagship investigative journalism program. For 13 years he served as managing editor of CBC Manitoba, overseeing all editorial content on radio, television and online. He also wrote the book Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.
Although the phenomenon of misinformation is not new, it has proliferated in recent years, a growth fuelled by the speed at which information is conveyed through social media and the internet. “Before the internet, news travelled slower. Everything is instant today,” says Rosner. Popular technology has mimicked this acceleration. “The vast majority of people today consume news on their smartphones. But is a phone a great way to read a 2,500-word piece?” From university courses he has taught, Rosner knows that young people don’t consume news through established news sites. “It comes through their feeds. It’s through Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.”
Shorter attention spans have also contributed to the problem. “We had software at CBC that revealed how people were reading our online stories. By the third paragraph of a piece 80 to 90 per cent of people had stopped reading. Only a tiny minority read the entire article,” notes Rosner. “If you don’t read a story to the end, you have no idea whether or not the evidence justifies the headline.”
The dynamics of social media may also exaggerate our gullible tendencies, as platforms like Facebook incentivize engagement before fact-finding. Indeed, researchers have discovered that while people don’t always believe a story that they see on social media, they will often still share it.
Purveyors of fake news can make their insidious messages more convincing using a few basic tricks. For example, the simple presence of an image alongside a statement is known to increase the perception of its accuracy. It’s also been established that the more often we see something in our news feed, the more likely we are to think that it’s true—even if we were originally skeptical.
“You have bad actors out there who are deliberately creating misinformation and spreading it and setting up troll farms where they’re retweeting misinformation in multiple accounts. It has created a situation that is actually quite dangerous. I think we all remember during the worst days of the Covid pandemic, there was a lot of medical and health misinformation being disseminated,” says Rosner. “If you take action on some of those false claims, it could actually be seriously damaging to your health.”
The spectre of AI is bound to further complicate matters. “AI represents a huge, new frontier. It has great promise, but it also has the potential to do awful things. It will have to be monitored to assure that it conforms to ethical standards,” says Rosner. For example, he notes there are now sites such as HeyGen.com, where one can create a video of anyone speaking fluently in different languages, and ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com, which enables users to attach a completely made-up identity to a fake face, thereby creating a new persona.
Combatting the scourge of fake news requires the ability to scrutinize not only others, but oneself. “We need to be self-reflective and understand that we’re susceptible to false posts when they align with our own beliefs,” says Rosner. “We’re all vulnerable to cognitive biases. One of the most powerful is confirmation bias. People tend to gravitate to news stories that confirm things that they already believe. By doing this people end up living in their own echo chambers.
“We should always be ready to test the validity of a claim. Be sceptical if something strikes you as odd or counterintuitive. Critical thinking is essential if people want to get to the truth. You need to have the willingness to seek out the evidence.”
Learn more about Cecil Rosner’s course Media Literacy, Critical Thinking and Investigative Journalism, which will next be offered in Spring 2024. And explore other alumni and community opportunities through UM’s Learning for Life Network.