UBC lecturer Ron Darvin talks fake news and how students might still be susceptible to it

The phrase “fake news” has been garnering lots of attention since Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States last year, but the implications of this term are not as well defined. The Ubyssey sat down with Ron Darvin, lecturer and PhD candidate at UBC, whose research examines the digital literacy of students in Vancouver given their various backgrounds. 

Darvin is a proponent of what he calls “critical digital literacy” — in a highly digitized world, young people may be tech savvy, but not fully equipped with the critical tools to navigate the internet for truthful or factual information.

“We’ve shifted to what is called ‘the attention economy’ because there is so much information out there that the real battle is not who has the real information, but who is able to able to catch people’s attention,” said Darvin. Children cannot fully navigate these spaces, adults are still learning to adjust and fake news sources are becoming more sophisticated in parading as the real thing.

“We’re talking about entering an age of post-truth, where it’s easier for us to believe the stuff that feels right, rather than what is right, or factual or truthful,” said Darvin. 

Fake news is a variety of false information — a hoax, a lie, a conspiracy theory or pseudoscience, but it has also become a term that some people use to refer to news they do not like or agree with. A grey line is drawn where other information such as satire or sponsored advertising can be mistaken for fake news. Darvin suggests several ways to identify fake news and the first step is to call it out.

“It’s important for us to call out [fake news] for what it is — is it a lie, a deception or a hoax? — so that it doesn’t get diluted into the whole sphere of [influence],” he said.

There are browser extensions like BS Detector and websites such as Snopes and Hoaxslayer, which debunk scams and attempt to validate viral content. There’s also Politifact, which specifically functions within US politics and ranks the truthfulness of tweets and statements on a “truth-o-meter” scale. Users should nonetheless not always rely on such tools, noted Darvin, but be critical in their own observations as well.

“I think it’s also critical for kids, or any user for that matter, that it’s not just about installing these programs and believing everything that you see. It’s very important for users to always be able to examine these stories themselves.” 

Other prevalent forms of fake news, which may be a little more subliminal, include deliberately misleading headlines, certain URLs and domain names masquerading as legitimate news sources, manipulated logos and images, and social media usernames (especially Twitter handles that may be posing as reputable news organizations).

“One thing to recommend to people is to burst their filter bubble — and by that I mean go out and search for information in legitimate news websites. That also means supporting these journalists by taking subscriptions and paying. If we are not able to support that, then how do we get real people from real journalists who are out there doing truthful journalism?”