A Failure of Media and Information Literacy

fake newsWe heard a lot about the "fake news" that we (Americans) were consuming in 2016. The election of President Trump brought the topic to the top of the news feeds. 

Fake news is a new entry for Wikipedia which describes it this way: "Fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation in social media or traditional news media with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. If often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news-stories in order to increase readership and online sharing."

Though some fake news is about making a profit in the same way that clickbait does by ad-revenue generated compensation, some of it is to forward a political or social agenda.

Some fake news sources are anonymously hosted or lack known writers and publishers (which makes it more difficult to prosecute sources of fake news for libel or slander). It is hardly a new kind of news.

I wrote earlier this year about fake news and information literacy, but the more I read about it, the less optimistic I am about the situation improving.

Our history courses taught us in earlier decades and centuries about yellow journalism and political propaganda, and some of the same strategies are used. But the media, 24-hour news' appetite for content and especially the Internet and social media have made it so much easier to produce and distribute it to the world.                

As an educator, I'm anxious about the spread of fake news, and I wonder if the current commitment, or lack thereof, to media literacy programs is enough to combat its spread.

We have been teaching at all grade levels for a long time about fact-checking and verifying the accuracy and veracity of sources. We did it as educators with print and we adapted it in the digital and Internet age. But I don't think it's working. It is not only the younger generations that seems to be taken in by fake news, but also older generations who are long out of the classroom.

Danah Boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. In her book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she examines how "...society fails young people when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens through their online interactions." 

I remember well trying to get my fellow faculty to examine, use and teach students how to wisely use Wikipedia back in 2001. It was a tough sell. Boyd has seen the results. She says "Students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not. Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have? The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’s universal agreement that major news outlets like the New York Times, scientific journal publications, and experts with advanced degrees are all highly trustworthy."

The time is now to review how we teach media literacy.

Am I hopeful? No. Not if we continue teaching it the way we have in the past few decades.

Danah Boyd feels "The path forward is hazy. We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated — and in many ways, overwhelming — information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted. We also cannot simply assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us, whether they be traditional news media or social media."

Boyd writes that "As a huge proponent for media literacy for over a decade, I’m struggling with the ways in which I missed the mark."

What needs to change? A lot. She says that we need to "build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines." I don't know how we do that. I don't know anyone who has a new approach in place. But I agree with her that we can't ignore hate speech, fake news, biased content and propaganda online and expect that things will get better.


Our Attention Economy

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Money follows eyeballs. I saw that phrase on a slide in a conference presentation about marketing with social media.

Everyone wants your attention. Your children want your attention. Your spouse wants your attention. You want the attention of your students. Nothing new about that concept and there are plenty of ways to get someone's attention.

But it is a more recent way of thinking about attention to consider it as economics. I was listening to the audiobook of A Beautiful Mind recently. It's a book (and a good but highly romanticized film) about the mathematician John Nash. Nash received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory as it was applied to economics. His ideas, presented in the 1950s, certainly must have seemed novel at the time, but 40 years later they seemed logical. That will probably be true of attention economics. There are already a good number of people writing about it.

Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity. With attention as a commodity, you can apply economic theory to solve various information management problems.

Attention is a scarce commodity or resource because a person has only so much of it.

Not only in economics but in education and other areas that focused mental engagement that makes us attend to a particular item, leads to our decision on whether to act or not. Do we buy the item advertised? Do we do what mommy said to do? 

We are deep into the Information Age and content is so abundant and immediately available, that attention has become a limiting factor. There are so many channels and shows on the many versions of "television" competing for our attention that you may just decide not to watch at all. Or you may to decide to "cut the cord" and disconnect from many of them to make the choices fewer.

Designers know that if it takes the user too long to locate something, you will lose their attention. On web pages, that attention lasts anywhere from a few seconds to less than a second. If they can't find what they were looking for, they will find it through another source.

The goal then becomes to design methods (filters, demographics, cookies, user testing etc.) to make the first content a viewer sees relevant. Google and Facebook want you to see ads that are relevant to YOU. That online vendor wants the products on that first page to be things you are most interested in buying. Everything - and everyone - wants to be appealing to everyone.

In attention-based advertising, we measure the number of "eyeballs" by which content is seen.

"You can't please everyone." Really? Why not?

In the history section of the entry on "Attention Economy" on Wikipedia, it lists Herbert A. Simon as possibly being the first person to articulate the concept of attention economics. Simon wrote: "...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it" (Simon 1971, pp. 40–41).

Simon was talking about the idea of information overload as an economic concept and that has led to business strategists such as Thomas H. Davenport to use the term "attention economy" (Davenport & Beck 2001).

Where will this lead? On the outer edges are those who speculate that "attention transactions" will replace financial transactions as the focus of our economic system (Goldhaber 1997Franck 1999).

Designers of websites, software, apps and any user interface already take into account attention, but information systems researchers have also adopted the idea. Will we see mechanism designs which build on the idea of creating property rights in attention?


Animating Hair Is a Lesson in STEAM

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I am a proponent of the concept of teaching in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) framework that goes across disciplines. I have seen many attempts to use science and math in teaching art - some successful, some not.

A new project that does this in an engaging way is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy that is sponsored by Disney. Called "Pixar in a Box," it gives a look behind-the-scenes at how artists at Pixar need to use STEM to make art.

To make balls bounce, leaves in trees move in the wind, fireworks explode or realistic rippling water takes more than drawing skills. It requires computer skills and considerations of math, science such as physics and digital humanities.



In this learning series of videos on simulations, the Pixar artists use hair as an example of an animation problem that needed to be solved. Using examples from their films, such as the character Merida in Brave with her bouncy and curly hair, you learn how millions of hairs can be simulated if you think of them as being a huge system of springs.

As the lessons progress, you can learn about animation roles and will discover what a technical director does in the animation process.

The lessons are appropriate for grades 5 and up - though I can see many adults and younger kids interested in animation from a technical or artistic side enjoying the free series.