Tag Archives: The Machine Stops

Fight fake news waste by asking W.A.I.S.T.: “Why Am I Sharing This?”

27 Feb

[I’ve prepared the following post to go with a brief talk I’m giving on March 1 at UC Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio for a panel discussion on “Beyond Hype, Hysteria, and Headlines:  Strategies to Address Media Literacy Gaps in the Classroom.”]

Shortly after she became a grandmother, the writer Anne Lamott came up with a brilliant acronym as a reminder for herself. Any time Lamott felt the urge to offer unsolicited (and probably unwelcome) parenting advice to her son and daughter-in-law she would try to stop herself by thinking:  

W.A.I.T.  

Which stands for “Why am I talking?”

The acronym works beautifully in its two-fold way by first reminding one to pause and then to think before speaking. Though she intended it for her own use, and subsequently as a suggestion for other grandparents, I’ve found it helpful to employ as a parent of a pre-teen as well as in meetings at work and in conversations with friends and loved ones.

Inspired by Lamott, and knowing I wanted my undergraduate students at Berkeley to do a little thinking about the “fake news” that’s much discussed in the real news these days, I came up with an assignment for them centered around another acronym:

W.A.I.S.T.

Which stands for “Why Am I Sharing This?”

 

Guiding Students Through the Morass of Fakery and “Fakery”

As many media observers have noted, fake news has become a kind of catch-all term in the past few months to harness information reported and shared online that is entirely or partially made-up, and which could constitute anything from straight-up propaganda to biased half-truths to cynical attempts to profit from people’s mindless, emotional clicking to sharp satire and on and on until we get to meta moments like this piece of performance art when earnest news commentators are rightfully sussing out fake news purveyors who, in their turn, prove the point of how easy it is for fake news to go viral.

And that’s to say nothing about the most troubling category of fake news:  the news that the current president categorizes as “fake” not because it’s not factual or well-sourced but because he doesn’t like the story.

Into this breach stepped the students in my second-semester freshman reading, composition, and research class. As in thousands of other college classes across the country, my students always learn to practice careful critical assessment of source material. This is essential not only to their work while in college, but also to their future as engaged, productive citizens. Since my current group is studying issues around the Internet, social media, and the human-machine interface generally, it was a natural fit to ask them to spend some time discussing and then evaluating some of the news they themselves were inclined to share in online spaces.

We first discussed what they took “fake news” to mean, and looked at some samples of things that were flat-out lies, such as this meme that was widely circulated in many forms and on many social media sites prior to the election last November:

fake-news-about-trump

Source: Snopes

As has been widely reported, Donald Trump never said this. It didn’t stop the meme, even after it was debunked, from being shared again and again on social media by Trump’s detractors who desperately wanted it to be true. As my students noted, it’s difficult to figure out who originated many memes, but whoever created this one did a bang-up job of trying to capture a Trumpian tone to the quote that made it seem potentially real.

My class also looked at this bit of fake news about President Obama supposedly banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools that stirred up predictable outrage amongst those who didn’t like him. Those same people presumably ignored whatever internal “Really?” voices they possessed (not to mention the funky URL with the extra “co”) and instead liked, shared, or otherwise reacted to this fake post on Facebook some 2.2 million times as of mid-November:

fake-news-about-obama

Source: Refinery29

 

Among the key things to note about these two samples of fake news are that each of them went viral because of the emotions they stirred among Trump’s and Obama’s detractors, respectively. Many people who were pleased to see confirmation of their own biases, and who were spurred on by the controlling fervor of their emotions and the satisfying immediacy of the social media interface, shared and reacted to this fakery quickly and without much thought.

Clearly it’s time we all slowed ourselves down a bit.

 

The Assignment

After the above discussion, I asked my students to read this excellent article by the journalist Brooke Berel that usefully frames in the problem of fake news, provides historical context and helpful links (including this list of fake news sites from Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College), and points to steps that journalists, tech companies, and we, the public, can take to ensure that fake news doesn’t metastasize into a permanent condition.

My assignment, which you can see here (why-am-i-sharing-this) was a simple one.

I asked my students to pick two items from their social media feeds that they’d be likely to share with others (or which indeed they had already shared) without too much thought. Whether a joke or apparently serious news, whether an article or a meme or a video or a GIF, the two pieces they picked had to have some facts or claims that would need to be verified. Then I asked them to write up their assessments of each piece in five steps:

  1. Describe what it is.
  2. Explain why you’d be inclined to share it quickly.
  3. Identify and carefully evaluate the source:  its origins, its credibility, its biases, its truth.
  4. Consider your audience:  how would they react?  what benefits or problems might arise from sharing this post so quickly?
  5. And then, knowing what you know now, would you still share the post, and what have you learned by doing this exercise?

The students picked a wide range of material and revealed themselves to be astute evaluators of truth on social media (contrary to what some studies of their generation have found), readily identifying clickbait and things that would stir social media users in particular ways. However, there was also evidence that some of them needed more help in assessing not only the factuality of material but also the context in which that material was situated and how that shaped the message. This was to be expected–most of my students are college freshmen, and people of any age can make these types of mistakes. But it also pointed up a key thing to consider about the problem of fake news:  in school assignments, students make these mistakes even when they are keyed to think and act more carefully and critically. In everyday discourse on social media, where speed and emotion are king, what chance does the truth have?

Another thing that stood out in the students’ responses was their acute awareness of their immediate audience on social media:  Not only (or even primarily) “Is this post true?” but “Will my followers and friends like it?” In doing so, they seemed to enact their own versions of this graphic representing “How to be unannoying on Facebook”:

facebook-status-guide-how-to-be-unannoying

Source: WaitButWhy

 

Intuition and the Mind:  

A Few Obvious and Yet Important Takeaways for Fighting Fake News

After the students had completed the assignment, we talked about some of the things they thought we all should do to better evaluate news and “news” that is shared on social media. Working in small groups, they each came up with lots of good suggestions for making classic critical moves of evaluating authors, media outlets, and interest groups; cross-checking facts; following trails to original sources; being aware of confirmation bias; sniffing out doctored images and sketchy web site design; relying on fact-checking sites and on distinguishing credible sources from non-credible ones, and so forth. I was pleased to see them suggesting many of the same steps recommended by the UCB Library when it issued a guide to identifying fake news a couple of weeks later.

An amusing contrast emerged when one group listed the advice to “Use your mind!” when on social media, while across the room another group advised people to “Use your intuition.” While the assignment and our debriefing of it were largely focused on doing the former, the latter was indeed an important step in the process of assessing an item’s veracity. It just shouldn’t be the only one.

So, distilling the students’ very concrete findings and that mingling of mind and intuition, I come to the following steps for asking and enacting W.A.I.S.T. (“Why Am I Sharing This?”) not just in scholarly work but, especially, in everyday social media use, enabling a pause to think before sharing, liking, or reacting in whatever way:

*The more emotional you are, the more you should pause.

*If it’s not a credible source you know you can trust, you should pause.

*If the piece speaks deeply to your own biases, you should pause. Twice.

*If liking/sharing/reacting is mostly about making yourself feel better, you should pause. (See Venn Diagram above.)

*If you haven’t carefully considered how your audience will react to the news, you should pause.

*Do you want the site you’re sharing or liking to make money from your sharing and liking? No? Then you should pause.

*Have you actually read or watched the thing you’re sharing? No? You know what to do.

You get the idea. Like Anne Lamott, the grandmother aspiring to restraint, we all need to take a moment to WAIT before reacting, then ask WAIST, and then, and only then, should we act. Remember that most of the time on social media we are not in read-and-react situations of imminent danger:  we are not in a war zone, on a dark street corner at night, or about to be sacked by a 300-pound lineman. Most of us are sitting on our couch at home, getting stirred up by the little machine in our hand.

Speaking of machines…

 

…A Coda from E.M. Forster

 

For several years, I’ve had students in this same class read E.M. Forster’s prescient short story, “The Machine Stops,” which was first published in 1909. (I’ve previously written about Forster’s story and its relevance for our time elsewhere on my blog.) In the story, the people of a futuristic society live entirely underground and rarely move or leave their hive-like “cells,” such that their bodies have become “lump[s] of flesh.” The most common activity is sitting alone in one’s cell before a screen, remotely connected by a central, god-like Machine to thousands of other residents, all of them incessantly listening to and giving lectures on various “ideas” that aren’t ideas at all.

At one point in the story, an influential lecturer whose area of expertise is the French Revolution gives some advice to his sedentary, isolated listeners that captures the ethos of the soon-to-perish Machine civilization. Like so much of Forster’s story, the lecturer’s absurd advice to his somnolent audience offers us an all-too-relevant warning for our own time:

“Beware of first- hand ideas!”….“Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element—direct observation. …You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time…there will come a generation that has got beyond facts…a generation…which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Only Connect”

6 Feb

Earlier this week, I was standing at a bus stop in busy downtown Berkeley, waiting to ride home after work. An email came in on my smart phone from one of my students who had a question regarding an essay he was writing about E.M. Forster’s speculative 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops.”

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

I looked up from my phone and briefly locked eyes with a gaunt, ragged-looking man who was walking past. He had all the markers of the hardcore homeless who, sadly, are all too familiar in Berkeley:  matted hair, torn clothing, dirt covering him from head to toe. Given his appearance, I assumed he was likely drug-addicted or schizophrenic, or both.

An extended gaze exchanged with someone like this rarely goes well; I looked back down at my phone to consider my student’s email.

Suddenly, a grimy palm was thrust between me and the phone, inches from my face. A faint scent of decaying garbage.

I recoiled, and there the man was, almost shoulder to shoulder with me as I leaned against a brick wall. The wild eyes seeing me, or not. He was muttering. I waited.  

“Can I tell you something?” he finally asked in a faint voice.

“Sure.”

He muttered again, almost as if praying. What I could hear sounded like gibberish. I waited.

Then, with a violent motion, he chopped his hand against my phone and sent it clattering to the sidewalk.

“Turn it off!” he shouted, and then continued in unintelligible fashion, only now more loudly and inches from my face.

“OK, OK,” I said as calmly as I could, then bent to pick up my phone and started walking up the street away from the bus stop. Away from him.

“You will be executed!” he offered as benediction and then stalked off.

I circled back to the bus stop, wondering how many of the people there had watched and heard this exchange. It was hard to tell:  none of them looked at me. Most of them were looking at their phones.

Kuno Comes to Berkeley

In “The Machine Stops,” Forster’s narrator tells of a futuristic world in which the people are willingly in the grip of an all-controlling Machine that was created by humankind generations before. Each person now lives alone underground in windowless rooms that are honeycombed together “like the cell[s] of a bee.” Physical touch between people is considered repellent, in-person meetings rare. People are entirely disconnected from Nature and from each other, communicating via screens, delivering empty lectures, having things brought to them by the Machine, their minds and muscles atrophying. When the main character, Vashti, is first introduced to us, it is not as a woman but as a “swaddled lump of flesh…with a face as white as a fungus.”

My students frequently make connections to movies like Wall-E and The Matrix, and it’s also an easy leap to see the way Forster imagined us all a century later Skyping and Facebooking and You Tubing and ordering packages from Amazon by drone, as in this description of Vashti’s small room:

“Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
 

The only one in the story who resists The Machine and its dictates is Vashti’s son, Kuno. He begs his mother to journey across the earth to see him so he can speak to her and see her face-to-face and “not through the wearisome Machine.” He thinks and asks questions. He longs to visit the forbidden surface of the Earth and to exercise his body and to look at the sky and wonder at the stars, all of which he does before The Machine violently tugs him back beneath the ground. Kuno is the only one who foresees The Machine society’s cataclysmic end.

Kuno is the voice of reason in the story, the only one to resist the absurdity and tyranny of The Machine. Kuno’s is Forster’s voice, and ours.

And for this, Kuno and his like–the rational, the physical, the emotional, the sensual, the non-mechanical people, the ones who can see the truth–are outcasts in the society of The Machine, flung to the surface of the Earth to die, and assigned the status most feared by Vashti and her “friends”:

Homelessness.

I boarded the bus for home and looked down at my phone, its screen streaked with oil from the man’s hand, from mine. I wondered if I had dared not to avert my eyes from him to look at my phone but instead had held his gaze and smiled or given a friendly nod whether his response would have been different. Or perhaps he would have raved at me regardless.

How many people must shun this man, minute by minute, every single day of his life? Imagine the cumulative effect of that loneliness and that rejection by one’s fellow human beings.

In his own way, whatever the biochemistry of his brain was doing to thwart his efforts, the man was looking to make contact, and I had instead responded in a way that was perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable in polite society (“perfectly mechanical,” Vashti would say), and instead had turned to my phone. I had, as the characters in the story do, “isolated” myself.

His enraged madman’s response to me was, in the end, perfectly rational. It’s a less-polite version of the same lament so many of us regularly have about others and, if we’re being honest, about ourselves, even as we can’t resist the pull of the flashing notifications, the desire to see what the web, Forster’s evolved Machine, has delivered to us.

Indeed, the man’s screaming was a crazed echo of another of Forster’s creations, Margaret Schlegel of Howard’s End who wants to implore the rigid, unemotional Henry Wilcox with one of Forster’s most famous entreaties, one that rings down the decades, louder and more urgently now than ever, if we’ll stop long enough to hear it:

“Only connect!”

 

Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.