Give children tools to filter social media - Challenging online dishonesty

WHEN The Irish Press was first published in 1931 — Pádraig Pearse’s mother pressed the button to start the printing press — the paper’s founder Éamon de Valera said the paper’s purpose was: “To give the truth in the news ...” 

Give children tools to filter social media - Challenging online dishonesty

Despite that noble ambition, one more easily expressed than realised, The Irish Press was, in reality, an arm of Fianna Fáíl. It was established to ensure that party had a reliable cheerleader on Ireland’s news stands. Though hardly as sinister as Pravda, the Russian communists’ klaxon, it served the same purpose.

The weekend acknowledgment from Mark Zuckerberg that Facebook must tackle fake news, dressed as fact, seems a contemporary version of that age-old dilemma: where does truthful and objective news end and barely-disguised propaganda begin? Zuckerberg also argued the hoax stories on the social network did not influence the the US election. He, it must be imagined, made this assertion with a straight face because the American election — and Brexit — was won by advancing one fake, post-factual fantasy after the other. That president-elect Trump is, thankfully, rowing back on some of his wilder promises — “We’ll build the wall and Mexico will pay” — just confirms that.

Zuckerberg insisted that “on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic”. Even if the establishment media has very many failures to reflect on and explain after the US and Brexit votes, the responsible majority of that industry would not accept the tag “authentic” as reason enough to publish something. Opinions can be authentic but wrong. Accurate reportage requires something far more reliable than the belief conferred by an opinion. Sarah Palin, after all, thinks she’s fit to be America’s Secretary of the Interior.

That Facebook, based on your social media history and interests, selects what you may or may not see further complicates the picture. It also narrows horizons, and like those universities that offer “trigger” warnings to snowflake students, it gives just the part of the story that won’t challenge your position. It confirms rather than informs. The ban on the iconic Vietnam War picture — the young girl running in terror and naked after a napalm attack — was an extreme example of this uninformed, sinister censoriousness.

Despite all of that, moaning about the role of social media in our public life is as pointless as the protests objecting to the Trump presidency. Both realities must be accepted but we should do a lot more to teach our children how to filter, how to interpret the tsunami of facts, opinion, vitriol and unmasked hatred so alive and corrosive on social media.

Pádraig Pearse’s mother would recognise our school system, even though her world, and our world, are very, very different. Maybe it’s time our school curriculums were revised to put more emphasis on ethics, on civic morality, on understanding history’s lessons. We should do this because, like de Valera when he set up The Irish Press, Zuckerberg’s ambitions do not run parallel to ours. Unless we do so our democracy will be undermined again and our children may not be in a position to make the best choices — and the forces making our world a less equal, more hateful place may prevail.

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