We had lots of journalism-class discussions about echo chambers, filter bubbles, confirmation bias, hyperpartisan sites and fake news this semester. It has been an interesting end to the year.

In all of the above, the finger is being pointed at social media. The sites spewing all those fake articles about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS all completely depend on Facebook to keep them alive and making money. Sadly, BuzzFeed reported that the top fake election news stories had more engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.

Which makes a report released by the Stanford History Education Group a few weeks ago even more worrying. The study found that young Americans do not critically evaluate online information

Stanford University researchers asked middle to university-level students in 12 US states and from schools of varying resource levels to complete 56 tasks involving online information.

The researchers evaluated nearly 8,000 responses and found the following:

  • More than 80% of students didn’t know what “sponsored content” meant and thought native ads were news articles.
  • More than 80% did not question the source of photos and took the captions at face value
  • More than 75% did not question the political agendas of organizations providing statistics on twitter

If you, like many of us, live in a liberal echo chamber/filter bubble, you might not actually see any of these fake articles, either because your Facebook friend network is too like-minded or because Facebook’s algorithms won’t show you anything it knows you disagree with. Or perhaps you’ve been overcome by Facebook Fatigue and don’t even have an account. ,

Either way, 40 percent of Americans get their news on Facebook, often through the news feed which is curated via Facebook algorithms. Here is the Facebook statement of news feed values, which include entertaining you and showing you things you like, whether it news, your sister’s photos or a recipe.

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” Mark Zuckerburg is reported to have said to colleagues.

Check out this fascinating graphic by the Wall Street Journal that shows liberal and conservative Facebook feeds side by side.

Facebook has gotten a lot of flak about the fake news circulated on its platform but says, “We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about.”  Here is a pretty interesting article about the censors at Facebook and the guidelines they use to decide whether to take down flagged posts and comments or not. The article argues that if media have a distinct voice, an example of Fox News having a conservative bias, then Facebook’s voice is to be nice.

And here’s a disturbing story from the Washington Post about two men who run a pro-Trump site where they write sensational, completely fake news for what they say is a lot of money paid by advertisers.

“You have to trick people into reading the news,” one of the fake news writers said in the article, describing the headlines and photos he uses to feed his audience’s fear, anger and hate of liberals, media, Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan.

“We’re the new yellow journalists,” he said, adding that he loses thousands of dollars if Facebook marks his outrageous posts as spam.

The most depressing part of this article is when one man describes what he really wants to write: ” ‘In a perfect world,’ he says, it would have nuance and balance and long paragraphs and take longer than 10 minutes to compose. It would make people think. But he never writes it, he says, because no one would click on it, so what would be the point?”

I disagree with the man responsible for the fake news story “BREAKING: Top Official Set to Testify Against Hillary Clinton Found DEAD.” There are many, many people out there who choose to read balanced, insightful well-written articles over the junk these guys are feeding people for money.

In class we also talk about how to break out of our own echo chambers and be critical about the news we read. Here is a good article explaining the steps on how to investigate a news story or a source to see find out if it’s credible or not:

There is also a boom in fact-checking from both the mainstream media and organizations created specifically for fact checking purposes, such as PolitiFact  and Factcheck.org.  From 2008 to 2012, fact checking increased by 300 percent. And it is not just for the US presidential election — though sometimes it seems that is all that is checked. Factchecking happens all over the world. Here is a good map of dedicated factchecking locations.

But back to the idea of confirmation bias, studies show that we only believe things that support our existing opinions anyway, so fact checking doesn’t actually do much good.

Other classroom solutions: follow people you disagree with and actively seek out their articles and opinions. Cultivate empathy. Rise above anger and resentment. I found this list of things we can do as individuals.

And to quote the late great Edward R Murrow in response to Joseph McCarthy’s condemnation of Murrow’ friendship with a British socialist: ” He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principles as a pre-condition for conversation or friendship. ”