Is 2018 the year to defeat 'fake news'?

France and Germany are trying restrictive new laws to stamp out fake news and hate speech online. But helping students – and adults – sharpen their own reasoning ability may be a better solution.

Yoan Valat/Pool/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his New Year wishes to members of the diplomatic corps at the Elysee Palace in Paris Jan. 4. Mr. Macron has promised to crack down on 'fake news' in 2018.

In an annual Marist Poll, released in December, “fake news” ranked as the second-most annoying phrase Americans hear (“Whatever” is the perpetual winner).

But however overused or misused the term has become, fake news isn’t likely to go away soon. Instead the questions “How do we spot it?” and “What can we do about it?” are likely to loom even larger in 2018.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are pledging to police themselves more vigorously. France and Germany, with strong concerns about the attempts of “fake news” to influence recent elections, are taking legislative action.

Beginning Jan. 1, online posts on major German social media sites (Facebook, etc.) deemed to contain “obviously illegal” material, such as hate speech or fake news, risk fines of as much as 50 million ($60.4 million). Individual citizens can report content they think qualifies.

Earlier this week French President Emmanuel Macron proposed new legislation that he said would “evolve our legal system to protect our democracy from fake news.” The law would make more transparent the sources of online content, and would have the power to block or remove anything determined to be “fake.” 

“If we want to protect liberal democracies,” Mr. Macron said, “we have to be strong and have clear rules.” The French leader has claimed that Russian sources spread misinformation about his 2017 election campaign.

The European Commission has also set out guidelines for social media sites, prodding them to act faster to identify and delete hate speech online.

Both countries need to proceed cautiously. Government-based efforts, however well intentioned, run the risk of impinging on citizens’ rights of free speech. 

More desirable would be an empowered citizenry, alert to detecting, and rejecting, fake news when they see it. 

Several US states have begun to fight fake news by ramping up the teaching of news media literacy in schools.  

“I don’t think it’s a partisan issue to appreciate the importance of good information and the teaching of tools for navigating” news online, said Hans Zeiger, a Republican state senator in Washington State who cosponsored a bill on the topic last year. “There is such a thing as an objective source versus other kinds of sources,” he told The Associated Press, “and that’s an appropriate thing for schools to be teaching.”

Media literacy is being encouraged to be part of courses on subjects from civics to language arts. The prevalence of fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign seems to be driving at least some of these efforts. 

Students from middle school to college can be “easily duped” by sites they visit online, and they need to be better equipped to use their reasoning ability to sort truth from fiction and detect bias, concluded a study published by researchers at Stanford University.

Students should be able to not only cite sources for material they present in their schoolwork but also be able to explain why the sources are credible.

To be responsible citizens, adults need to take on this same task of winnowing the tares from the wheat as they go about the important job of learning what’s happening in the world. 

As Sgt. Joe Friday used to tell witnesses on the classic TV police drama “Dragnet,” “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” 

He rejected "fake news." Informed citizens are able to do that too.

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