We live in a “post-truth” world. In 2019 we have technologies that can say and show things that are so convincingly real, yet these “deep fakes” were generated by AI, even mothers as we saw above cannot always tell the difference between their own son and a phony. We have presidential elections full of fake ads that mislead and enrage. How do we know what is real when even our followers on social media can be fake? This isn’t just an issue for school teachers, this is something that may be more important for older audiences to consider as we saw with the last presidential election with Trump and Clinton.
Let’s take this “deep-fake recording” of my voice for example.
That was from a website called Lyrebird named after a bird that can mimic even chainsaws. A company that has created a free website to allow people to create their own voice avatars that can turn any text into speech. It can be so compelling that it has been used, innocently enough for now, to trick someone’s own mother at Buzzfeed.
This sort of thing has people scared. As a sort of response to disinformation, media/information literacy is education’s solution to helping people be savvy when it comes to consumption online so that we might avoid disinformation. But disinformation is not unique to the birth of the Internet, nor is it a recent construct. In fact, it has existed as long as there has been print, or radio and well before. Perhaps it’s safe to say that if disinformation is not new, then perhaps it’s just the ways in which it is created and disseminated.
One way for us to be up to date and savvy when it comes to online information is from Media Smarts which tells us in one of their activities that “media are constructions.” The idea being that what all videos, music, pictures that we see are made by someone with a viewpoint. I have to say that I agree with their point, but I’d like to expand it further and say that all expressions from humanity are constructions. A person’s thinking is limited to his/his own life’s experiences, biases, and perceptions. So isn’t the truth always subjective? Isn’t everything that people say a construction to some degree?
In this blog entry this week, we will look at what is my argument about information literacy at a very fundamental level. The idea of the entry being that yes, there are many ways that teachers can support young people to avoid being duped; however, I would argue that there are also essential understandings that should also take place simultaneously. (1) As a people, we need to be flexible to allow for multiple-viewpoints. (2) Much of what we accept as fact is based in trust. (3) Finally, we need to keep in mind that there are people out there who are actively trying to spread disinformation for their own gains. Let’s go more deeply into each of these ideas now.
How We Construct Truth: #1: Perceptions
As a species, we understand the world through our senses. We look, hear, touch, smell, and taste. These are our bodies’ sensors. This is how our brains gather data from the world around us. The way I look at our senses is that what we perceive is in many ways data: there is no judgement or value placed on what we see, until we do. There is a dog over there, it’s cute and friendly looking. The sky is blue, it’s going to be a nice day today, I can hear my son crying, he needs my help, etc. It is humans who interpret this information and add meaning in each situation; there is something that he or she notices, then a judgement.
Let’s look at another example of data interpretation. In this example we will look at what is typically thought of as “data”. Imagine you’re looking at a spreadsheet of your monthly spending over the last 15 years; it’s full of numbers. You plot the numbers on a line graph and it shows ups and downs. This graph in itself means nothing, but when you add your own inferences based on what you perceive, you create meaning.
You might come to the conclusion based on trends on your Amazon.com and Nordstrom’s habits, that you have spent too much money on shopping for clothes. You decide to set a budget and limit yourself from spending too much on shopping from now on. Another person might read the same chart and come to the conclusion that you have a fancy lifestyle. When he sees what you’ve been doing, he thinks that it’s ideal and the right way to live; no need to save more money. Both inferences are right, both people simply added perspective to data.
Could it be possible that another person could view the same thing and come to another conclusion? If that person agreed about your conclusion, does that make it right?
I’d like to conclude this section by looking at the importance of perspective-taking. The BBC writes about the importance of “self-awareness and flexibility” that our ideas and perceptions might be wrong or that another’s perceptions could be true. Similarly, The IB Program famously teaches us the notion that people with differences can also be right. Could this be the philosophical approach that we consider at the core of information literacy?
To Consider: To have a balanced view, we need to consider that others interpret the things that they perceive in ways that could be different to our own. Three viral Internet topics illustrate this idea: the McGurk Effect, “The Dress“, or Laurel vs. Yanny. We need to keep our minds open, and be flexible with others’ ideas: often what we see is based on inference and interpretations of our senses.
How We Construct Truth #2: Trust
When we cannot experience something first hand, how do we construct truth? The IB Diploma Program’s Theory of Knowledge’s text tells us that what we call “truth” is often based on trust. For example, I know that the 2016 Olympic Games were held in Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t attend, but news reports from the media tells me so. I trust the media that states this, so this fact must be true.
Consider these three statements and how we might construct truth from online media:
- Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg believes aliens gave him super powers. I know this because a friend I know posted and article on Facebook. When someone that we know, like a parent for example, tells us something, we tend to believe them. I trust this person because I know them and why would they say something that isn’t true. I trust him/her.
- iPhones are dangerous. I know this because I saw this claim in a news article posted on Google News. A trust worthy organization that is large, rich, or has connections to government often earn our trust. When we teach information literacy in schools, we often tell kids to look at .edu or .gov websites because they tend to be more credible (i.e. trustworthy). They have the people’s interest at heart, they are professional, they research, peer-review their publishings, they’re science-based, they are too big to get it wrong. I trust the company.
- Columbus discovered America, I know this because my teacher told me so in class. This is the idea that there are people in society like doctors, professors, people with years of experience in a given field, etc. People gain credentials in various ways and it’s how they indicate that they know the truth about their fields. I trust their expertise.
In short, we trust people and organizations to convey the truth when we did not experience things first hand. Words like “master’s degree”, “Apple News”, “My best friend saw…”, etc. are social ways we might encourage others to trust one’s perspectives.
To Consider: We trust that certain organizations or people are true due to their credentials or experience, but can these experts make mistakes? Are they humans who have perceptions and interpretations of what they see and hear? We can be information literate by questioning authoritativeness.
So far, we have defined ways that humans might determine what is truth, what about the active spreading of disinformation that is happening in our world around us today? As I write this blog entry, it’s not really only about the accuracy of truth which we might agree can be rooted in perspectives and can have multiple aspects that we have to consider; the current global conversation is about disinformation, lies, and the willingness to actively generate information that the speaker knows to be false for nefarious purposes.
In her TED talk about spotting lies, Pamela Meyer gives us a few pieces of information that might be helpful in understanding disinformation. According to Meyer,
- We choose to believe the things that people tell us. The receiver of the lie accepts it and chooses to believe that the speaker is telling the truth. This can be especially true when it comes to flattery: we want to believe it. Does this relate back to the idea of confirmation bias? When we have deep-rooted opinions about something and we come across disinformation, are we buying into the lie because we want to believe it?
- Lying is ingrained in us in ways that we might not even be aware of. To be savvy when we come across media that has strong emotional content, perhaps we should ask ourselves, what is this person hoping to accomplish here? Is it cultural or traditional for us to participate in this falsehood? Think presidential campaigns in the US; we know that presidents over-promise and under-deliver. It’s something that happens every 4 years. We even have a word for it that was coined in 2016: “post-truth”. As we saw up above, facts are not as important as emotional appeals. The tradition of electing the president in the US might be a way that we participate in lies.
- All people are hungry for something. Henry Oberlander, according to Meyer, “was such an effective con man. [He said], ‘look, I’ve got one rule… everyone is willing to give you something for whatever it is they’re hungry for.’ And that’s the crux of it. If you don’t want to be deceived, you have to know, what is it that you’re hungry for?” In other words, if you want truth, finding self-awareness is important. Being aware of what it is you most deeply desire can help you notice when a lie is manipulating you.
Meyer’s points paraphrased: lies are things that listeners agree to, have ingrained deeply in us both culturally and as a species which can manifest in emotional appeals. Lies can manipulate us; we should we aware of what it is that we most deeply desire so that we might be critical of when it is being presented to us.
I hope that these ideas have been helpful in guiding your thinking about what we are reading and viewing online. To distill it all down into a single idea, I think that I would have to say: truth does not exist, there are only things that we agree upon; sometimes we might agree upon a truth that could have something incorrect due to human error, lack of technological advancement, or even disinformation. Culturally, there are things that societies agree upon as truths that might not necessarily be true elsewhere; we should be aware of how truth and knowledge are constructed where we live.
After writing this entry, I also have more self-reflective questions about my own practice as well. As a teacher, am I engendering the notion that I am an expert who should be taken at face-value? Should I be encouraging of my students to challenge my claims I bring forth rather than to be complacent in taking information? My students inherently trust me because of my credibility; my students inherently trust the text that we read because I signal that they are from an expert. But what if instead I encourage critical thinking that looks to find the bias and subjectivity in all information we share? Perhaps as educators, we could construct truth with our students, and not for them. Verify, challenge, question, and discuss ideas with one another. Negotiate truth.
Negotiate truth especially with those that you disagree with and that look at the world in a way that might be different to your own. What is “fact” and what is “disinformation” aside, there’s a certain beauty in the idea that we can validate other’s perspectives by finding flexibility and looking to find truth in notions that might be contrary to what we have experienced. Truth moves in an ebb and flow of empathetically taking others’ perspectives and constructing ideas. Together.