‘Fake news’ class at Centre aims to create responsible citizens

Published 10:09 am Saturday, January 20, 2018

A new Centre College “Centre term” class focusing on “fake news” is teaching students how to discern fact from fiction in order to become well-informed, responsible citizens in a global world.

Dr. Michael Strysick, director of communications at the college, is teaching the course, which is a one-semester class condensed into a shorter period of a few weeks. He taught a similar class on news and information in the digital age two years ago.

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“I thought the next natural extension of that theme is fake news,” he said.

Students have an agenda for every class, and links to a reading list are sent via email.

“This topic — ‘fake news’ — is continuing to unfold in real time before our very eyes,” Strysick said. “For instance, we were talking about Facebook, Google and Twitter and their role in fake news and the Russian interference in the election, and it just so happened that (on Jan. 11), Facebook announced changes to its algorithm and the way they put their content together on their page. So we suddenly talked about something that just happened yesterday so we could talk about the topic in a very current way.”

The class syllabus states, “…The phenomenon (of fake news) has gripped the attention of people across the globe, including the highest levels of our own government. … Make no mistake. False or misleading news is as old as time, but it has likely never been as disruptive as (it is now).”

Austin Sharkey, a student from West Palm Beach, said the class is important to him because, “We go and live our day-to-day lives not realizing the impacts that fake news can have, and for most of us, we’re unaware of it.”

Sharkey said the class is teaching him the effect that fake news can have, “from manipulating our mindsets to giving us fake news that we perceive to be real, and then the big scope of things affecting a huge and very important election.”

Strysick said the class began a couple of weeks ago by discussing the importance of the First Amendment and what freedom of the press means in this country, and how it’s one of our sacred concepts. Students also discussed “what responsibility comes along with that, not only to the media, but to citizens as well,” he said.

Thomas Jefferson, who was a founding father of the United States, felt very strongly about freedom of the press, Strysick said, so students studied 10 letters Jefferson wrote about the subject during the course of his life.

“What’s interesting is even though Mr. Jefferson didn’t have a Twitter account, obviously, he had a principle that he would not make public statements in the media,” Strysick said.

But when he was president, he was the victim of a lot of what he called “false” news.

“Actually, in one letter he was very accusatory of Britain for having an army of news writers to discredit the United States,” Strysick said. “… even though he upheld the sanctity of the First Amendment, he got really upset with bad journalism and how the British government was trying to undermine American Democracy through this army of writers.”

Strysick said once students had a grasp of this historical background, they switched timeframes to the present.

“What I told the students on the very first day is that we’re going to take a very non-partisan approach to this (fake news). And that we’re not going to get into the kind of partisan bickering that we see that’s dividing this country,” he said. “I wanted them to think of themselves as being a think tank of young Generation Z.”

Strysick said the the class began by studying current fake news accusations with the “intelligence report from Jan. 26, 2017, which was a joint effort of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency to share what they could publicly about what they believed happened in the 2016 election and leading up to it.”

He said the report “makes it very clear that the intelligence committee believes there was strong Russian interference, through hacking and disinformation campaigns.

“So then we’ve worked really hard to understand what form that would take.”

Strysick said studies revealed that “bots” and “troll farms” used social media to like Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation.

“It’s just amazing — they created hundreds of these fake accounts and they would actually get tens and hundreds of thousands of people to sign up and follow these fake Facebook groups and get them to organize rallies for these fake groups,” he said.

For example, Strysick said on May 21, 2017, in Houston, Texas, two opposing fake Facebook groups created by Russians intentionally held rallies at the same time and location just to cause friction.

“They ended up getting into it with each other,” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

Will Dyekman, a Centre student from Elizabethtown, said he didn’t exactly know what fake news was until he took this class.

“You hear the term ‘fake news’ and you hear President Trump use it a lot. But going into this class, I didn’t know exactly what it is. And I didn’t know that it had such a big impact,” he said. “… But seeing it unfold as we go through the class, the impact that it has, the future implications that it could have, and how it potentially changed the outcome of an election of the greatest country on the planet” has affected his outlook on news and social media.

Strysick said his class is now discussing why it is concerning that people connected to the Russian government are creating these fake groups, not only to influence our elections, but to undermine democracy.

“The formula is very simple. They find issues over which there are already divisions in the country and they just pour gasoline on it,” he said. “But they do it in a very subtle way.”

For instance, Strysick said they discovered only about $100,000 was spent on advertising for all the different fake Facebook groups. “The class concluded they didn’t need to spend a lot of money because people signed up for these groups on their own.”

Strysick said through discussions and research, the class concluded the disinformation campaigns on Facebook were successful because they created fake accounts and fake personas that would just get people to agree with what they already think.

“So confirmation bias plays into it,” Strysick said. “They (fake social media accounts) want you to post something and then have people like it and comment on it and share it. So the fake sites and the fake Twitter accounts that were created were set up in such a way to play on confirmation bias in a way that would cause division.”

Skylar Winkley, a Centre student from Lexington, said she has learned how to determine “what’s real and what’s fake.”

“It’s a tool set to create awareness so that when we read something, we don’t just look at it and accept everything in the article,” she said. “… We can kind of analyze something and see the facts.”

Students use websites that distinguish real sites from fake ones created by nefarious sources.

During one session, students were introduced to the Hamilton 68 Dashboard (dashboard.securingdemocracy.org).

According to the Alliance for Securing Democracy website, the Hamilton 68 Dashboard tracks Russian influence operations on Twitter in near real time. “The Hamilton 68 dashboard, a project with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, seeks to expose the effects of online influence networks and inform the public of themes and content being promoted to Americans by foreign powers,” according to the site.

Sharkey said people need to be aware of their news sources and where the social media posts they see are coming from. He said they learned Russian hackers, “can change one letter in the URL and it appears to be an actual Google site. But it’s a totally different site that’s giving all this false information — like ‘BlackMattersUS,’ which is a spin off of Black Lives Matter. They were able to gather a large audience and be perceived as being real even though they were completely malicious.”

The groups Blackfist and United Muslims of America are also fake, Strysick said. “They’re all fake.”

Strysick said he wants the students “to really consume news and information more and to make good decisions about what’s good credible news.” He said they begin every class with current events that have popped up in their online news feeds from some of the leading media organizations such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and news curation sites like Axiom. “They’re also looking at things that are a little bit more from center like FOX on one hand and MSNBC on the other.”

Strysick said the class spends a lot of time reading stories from the Associated Press (AP). “I think it’s the most unbiased journalism that’s out there.”

“I told the students if at the end of the class you don’t know who I voted for or whether I’m conservative or liberal, then that will be a success because I have no desire to tell them what to think,” Strysick said. “I want to help them learn how to think thoughtfully. And that no matter what their position is, that it be a thoughtful and an informed one, and they will be a good, responsible citizen as a result of that.”

The class has also learned the U.S. intelligence community says the Russian interference effort hasn’t stopped at all.

“It’s really something that exists worldwide,” Strysick said.

He gave a recent example when a Russian hacker got into a French TV station and created a disinformation campaign and made it appear that ISIS had done it.

“ISIS will take credit for anything, and they did.” Strysick said.

Strysick said the goal for his students is to “not try to tell them what to think, but to just try to get them to think about this on their own and come up with their own conclusions. And then to also think about if we should be concerned about subsequent impacts on our elections.”

Strysick added that he is proud of his students in this class.

“What I have found, even in just this short period of time, is that all the kids in the class are so extremely thoughtful and taking this all very seriously. And it really give me hope about the future of this country.”

Online: openmind.press