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How 9th Grade English Lessons Can Stop Fake News

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

I love going to the zoo. Don't get me wrong, if I could see all those animals in nature, I would prefer it. But not having the time or money to go on authentic safaris (yet), I have to make do. So last year, I took my nephews to the local zoo. One of the first animals we approached was a mama and baby giraffe. And as amazing as these creatures were, I was more struck by my nephew's reaction: "Yeah, but... they're not real, right?"





He didn't know. How could he? His entire six-year-old life had been a mixture of reality and digital fiction, making it nearly impossible for him to tell the difference between the two. For all he knew, it was just like the giraffe's he'd seen in the Lion King, on YouTube, or on his child learning games.


As adults, this terrifies us. The thought that we are just one generation away from blurring the lines between what's real and what's not is like something straight from Stranger Things. That said, most adults aren't much better. With the rise of social media, there's also been a tremendous rise in misinformation. According to cnet.com, around 60% of people who get news from social media had shared false information. And while we are all looking to the omnipresent Zuckerberg and his all-powerful algorithm's to fix this problem, I think social media could solve it with a lesson taken straight from my 9th grade English class:

Cite your damn sources.




It's that simple. Ok, not quite so simple, but close. I'll explain. In life, there are three categories of thought: opinion, belief, and fact. It's incredible how many people conflate these three concepts, so let's get crystal clear on what they are.

1) Opinion: A personal preference that has zero ramifications outside yourself. These are just things you like, such as music, a favourite flavour of ice cream, or what you'd choose for your last meal. For some reason that needs no explanation, you just like or dislike something and it affects no one but you. 2) Belief: A personal conviction that isn't provable or disprovable (like a fact) but affects other people. This usually boils down to religion, politics, relationships, and personally held morals. When you see something, you think they should be a certain way but there is no way to prove it in a factual sense. For example, I love my wife. She's awesome. And I believe she's the best suited for me to spend my life with. But I can't scientifically prove that she's the best partner for me because I can't live my life with her, go back in time, test with someone else, and re-test with everyone on the planet (the way that we can observe, test, and re-test facts). My belief that she is the best choice for me isn't quite a fact but it's way stronger than an opinion as it affects other people (her, my kids, my family, her family, etc.). This is the same with politics. Trump was elected in 2016. Whether you like him or not, we can't factually state that Hilary would have been better because we can't go back in time and re-test her leadership under the same circumstances. Yes, we can have a very strong belief that she would have been better, but it can't be claimed as a fact which is hard for some people to swallow (and no, I am not supporting Trump here, for the record).

3) Fact: An occurrence in nature that is proven to be true through tests and re-tests under the conditions OR a historical event with enough evidence that any reasonable person would consider sufficient. What counts as "reasonable?" If you have to ask, you're likely not—hate to break it to you.


Now there will, sadly, always be two types of people in the world:


a) Skeptics who generally treat Facts as Beliefs and Beliefs as Opinions (they tend to downgrade by category)


b) Fanatics who generally treat Opinions as Beliefs and Beliefs as Facts (they tend to upgrade by category) But there's good news! Once you understand the distinction between opinion, belief, and fact and you recognize someone conflating those categories (as either a skeptic or a fanatic), you have every right to stop engaging in social discourse with that person on the subject at hand. Don't get me wrong, you can continue the conversation until you are blue in the face, but you shouldn't feel obligated by any means to argue with someone who can't tell the difference between those three areas of thought because you will, most likely, get nothing accomplished from the conversation. Alright, now back to fake news and 9th grade English class.




One of the first lessons that I learned in my freshman year of high school was that when you make a claim that is not your own, you need to...


...cite your sources. Why? So other people who don't know whether or not you are credible can visit the source of the information and decide for themselves if it is reliable. Crazy notion, right? I mean, it's only been the foundation for all the scientific and philosophic progress we've made as a species. But how could social media put this into use?


Easy. Imagine your feed became color-coded. Blue posts were facts; pink posts were opinion; and green posts were belief—we can let Facebook choose the colors, I couldn't care less about that. Now imagine that if you wanted to write a post, you had to choose your category: opinion, belief, or fact. Opinions and belief could be posted quickly with no additional information BUT... ...If you wanted to write something like a fact (an event that occurred or something that just is), you couldn't hit "post" until you filled out a very basic "works cited" form that gathered more information about your source. Over time, Facebook could collect credibility scores from individual sources rather than individual pieces of information. Plus, users would be flagged by the color "blue" to know that this is something represented as a fact, and they may want to investigate the source (which would be provided along with the credibility score). When I told my wife about this idea, she rolled her eyes and said, "Yeah but I'm not going to want to fill out all that information just to make a post."


My response?



Good. If someone is too lazy to provide their source, then just post the same information as a personal belief. But at least your audience will know that you're not willing to take the time—or responsibility—to claim the content is a fact.


Will this annoy some users? Probably. But do social media platform have a moral obligation to help their users distinguish between fact and fiction? Most definitely. At the end of the day, fake news is a problem with a solution we've figured out long ago:

Cite your damn sources. If we have any hope of helping everyone maintain the distinction between reality and misinformation, isn't it time we hold the general public to the same standards we expect from our 14-year-old English students?


That's my belief at any rate. What's yours?

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©2019 by Nathan Thompson.