Fake News Meets Fake History

I am happy to share with you my first piece to appear at Smithsonian.com on the influence of fake news stories on the 2016 presidential election and its implications for how we teach history. Like many of you I am troubled, though not surprised, by the inability of seemingly smart people to spot fake news or distinguish between reputable and problematic websites.

Having tracked the rise and spread of the black Confederate narrative across the Web has certainly given me insight into the various factors at work here. It’s not just that people don’t understand the history, but that they cannot spot structural problems with the website itself – problems that should steer a visitor away to begin with.

As I suggest in the piece, this is not rocket science. A healthy skepticism and a visitor armed with a few key questions about the legitimacy of a site will go far. Anything less is equivalent to walking up to a perfect stranger on the street for information and accepting as true whatever is shared.

Digital media or Web literacy needs to start early and needs to be integrated throughout the curriculum through college.

9 comments… add one
  • Joshism Dec 8, 2016 @ 17:50

    “People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true…they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool.”
    -Wizard’s First Rule (of Social Media)

  • Patrick Young Dec 6, 2016 @ 16:36

    I thought that the President of ireland offered an interesting suggestion. According to The Irish Times:

    “Teaching philosophy in schools, and promoting it in society, is urgently needed to enable citizens “to discriminate between truthful language and illusory rhetoric”, President Michael D Higgins has said.

    Amid claims that we have entered a “post-truth” society, he asked how we might together and individually contribute to a “reflective atmosphere in the classrooms, in our media, in our public space”.
    “The dissemination, at all levels of society, of the tools, language and methods of philosophical enquiry can, I believe, provide a meaningful component in any concerted attempt at offering a long-term and holistic response to our current predicament.”


  • Bob Beatty Dec 6, 2016 @ 13:11

    At the AASLH meeting in Louisville last year, Sam Wineburg addressed the very challenge regarding online sources http://ow.ly/FSIG306S13o.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2016 @ 18:29

      Thanks for sharing this. You no doubt remember my pleasant surprise when Wineburg delivered this talk last year. 🙂

  • Kristoffer Dec 6, 2016 @ 6:55

    I agree with almost all of this post, except its claim that “the influence of fake news stories on the 2016 presidential election…” A professional ethicist would beg to differ with you: https://ethicsalarms.com/2016/12/01/fake-news-ethics-a-quick-audit/

    “Did genuine, unequivocal fake news affect the 2016 election—that is, the first kind, the kind peddled by hoax sites like The News Nerd, and the Macedonian junk like the story about the Pope endorsing Trump? There’s no evidence that would suggest or support that. Many voters are naive, gullible, ignorant fools, but still: how many actually changed their votes based on complete fiction? It’s impossible to tell, but stating that this was the case is itself a form of fake news.”

    Another good criticism of how the image of fake news has been employed: http://fortune.com/2016/11/25/russian-fake-news/

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2016 @ 7:01

      Hi Kristoffer,

      I didn’t make any claim that fake news altered the outcome.

      It’s impossible to tell, but stating that this was the case is itself a form of fake news.”

      Even if I did referring to it as fake news would serve to collapse an important distinction between a mistaken or extremely biased claim with one whose intention is to deceive.

      • Kristoffer Dec 6, 2016 @ 8:00

        Oh, OK. Thanks for your clarification.

  • Allen Edelstein Dec 6, 2016 @ 5:43

    And what about the danger to the future understanding the past? The internet with its abundance of garbage will be a prime source of information about the past and the difficulty of separating truth from fiction will be more difficult in the future as the time distance becomes greater and greater.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2016 @ 5:47

      Certainly there will be a number of challenges, but that “garbage” will also tell future generations quite a bit about what their ancestors believed and why. In other words, I don’t believe that the challenges will be much different from say our ability to understand ancient cultures. In fact, an abundance of information may be preferable.

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