By Mark Bensilum. Originally published on my LinkedIn page, 14/12/16
It started out as a story claiming that fake news on Facebook helped Donald Trump to become the most powerful political leader in the world. The story has rumbled on for weeks, with Barack Obama claiming recently that, 'If we are not serious about facts and what's true and what's not ... then we have problems'. In this speech, Obama was making a bigger point about our willingness to compromise and the way we portray our opponents' views, but it was clear that he saw social media as playing a major role in this.
On Tuesday, a senior executive at Channel 4 in the UK warned that the next UK general election, due no later than May 2020, could be affected by fake news on social media if action is not taken.
Facebook, like most other networks and commerce sites, uses our activity and self-published content to build a picture of what we like and what we believe in. As a result, our screens will be full of links to stories that chime with those views. The allegation is that this serves to reinforce people's pre-existing views - users are never presented with evidence that might make them question the validity of those views.
Just a few months ago, Facebook stopped using human moderators to select trending stories, following claims that they showed a liberal bias. They were replaced by an entirely automated algorithm, although the Facebook help centre now states that a team reviews the topics to ensure that they '... reflect real world events'. (Of course, humans have to create that algorithmic method, before it is left to its own 'objective' devices, but that's another story.)
As adults, it's down to us to challenge ourselves and our beliefs: question them, give a fair hearing to the alternatives, weigh up the evidence for and against, and draw our own conclusions.
But what about our children?
Critical thinking is one of the most important skills that can be learned, and yet it forms a neglected part of a national curriculum that simply cannot keep up with the rapidly-changing information economy. We shouldn't leave it to chance, or expect Facebook and Twitter to fix it for us. There are so many engaging and entertaining ways to demonstrate the ease with which our minds can be convinced to believe something, and psychology is rich in examples. Let's use these to raise awareness of the issue amongst children - the voters of the future - and get them thinking for themselves.