Learning the news: Fake news and its willing victims

Anyone can improve the quality of his or her thinking with a little effort and a constant awareness of its importance, writes Roger Plothow.

Researchers at the University of Singapore have articulated an idea that seems obvious after hearing it, but it required that someone write it down to reinforce the “duh” factor.

They wrote: “Social tumult and divisions facilitate our willingness to believe news that confirms our enmity toward another group. It is in this context that fake news finds its audience.”

This dovetails nicely with a theory I’m working over in my head as part of my graduate studies (I told you I’d drag you with me back to school). It’s still very much a work in progress, but here’s the first part – communication fails if any of the parties lack sincerity of purpose. And sincerity of purpose isn’t possible if we haven’t developed self-awareness, at least on a fundamental level.

I know, I’m already writing like an academic, so I’ll leave theory behind for now. But here’s one of the things I think the Singapore researchers were getting at – fake news can only get a following when it has willing victims. People who are both self-aware and sincerely interested in learning facts are far less likely to fall for fake news than people who lack those qualities.

There’s no harm in having a firm set of beliefs and values, so long as one of the values is the humility to admit that we shouldn’t ever stop learning, which requires learning and using critical thinking skills.

And, guess what? There’s a whole online community devoted to this idea. It’s called, appropriately enough, the “Critical Thinking Community.” If you think studying and researching the topic of critical thinking is an activity only for pointy-headed professor types, stop reading now, because you’re about to be inundated with the pointy-headed thinking.

Here’s how this group – a coalition of people and organizations committed to the concept of critical thinking – defines the term:

“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use.”

I know, it makes my head hurt, too. But go back and read it again. Anyone can improve the quality of his or her thinking with a little effort and a constant awareness of its importance. For example, a critical thinker doesn’t see a meme on Facebook and assume it’s fact just because he or she agrees with it. Conversely, critical thinkers don’t automatically trash ideas with which they disagree.

One of the complaints I sometimes hear about our editorial page is that we often take positions that disagree with the majority of people living in eastern Idaho. First, I don’t know how anyone knows how the majority thinks on any given issue. Second, and more important, what fun would that be? The whole point of a commentary page is to be a marketplace of ideas. If that marketplace has only one product, it’s not very interesting.

I finish today where I began – fake news can have an impact only when we don’t exercise basic critical thinking skills. Anyone can do it. If we don’t and continue to fall for fake news, it’s no one’s fault but ours.

Roger Plothow is publisher and editor of the Post Register. This is a weekly year-long series on media literacy.