Katherine Wagner.

Citizen’s Ink: Fake news renders April Fool’s Day obsolete

We need to inoculate ourselves by improving our critical thinking skills.

I’ve lost my taste for the April Fool’s Day articles and videos floating around on Facebook and Twitter.

While many should be funny (and would be funny in another era), most are too similar to deliberate fake news to elicit a laugh. I haven’t lost my sense of humour, but current events are testing my resiliency.

I also wondered, as I clicked on links, what personal data I shared and how it might be deployed to manipulate me.

From John Oliver’s sharp edges in Last Week Tonight to Rick Mercer’s gentler observations in The Rick Mercer Show to satirical news sites such as The Beaverton, The Onion and The Borowitz Report, as well as short stories, political comics and amateur memes, satire is shared widely.

This often-comedic form pushes the boundaries of free speech, as it ridicules and critiques both elected and unelected elites by underscoring hypocrisy, inconsistency, stupidity and corruption. Satire is an essential part of a healthy democracy.

It’s a disturbing comment on the state of our world that many believe fake news even when it is so ridiculous it resembles satire.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, some friends on Facebook openly discuss leaving the platform or taking an extended break. I understand, but don’t believe isolating ourselves is the best response. We can fight back by embracing our inner skeptics.

Doris Lessing suggested that government could (if it wanted to) inoculate its citizens against propaganda by teaching the underlying psychology in public schools. She went on to state that no government ever would. Therefore, we need to inoculate ourselves by improving our critical thinking skills. Ironically, we have widespread, easy access to that knowledge, at least for now.

Net neutrality basically means that all Internet traffic is equal and service providers cannot give priority to specific content.

The U.S. recently stepped away from net neutrality and further opened the door to manipulation. In Canada, the CRTC currently supports net neutrality.

Understanding how our brains work is the first key to avoiding manipulation. It’s easier and more comfortable for our minds to accept than challenge, especially when something conflicts with an existing belief.

Cognitive dissonance is distressing and our brains work to relieve us of the stress. Our brains also protect deeply held beliefs when presented with evidence to the contrary.

Finally, our need to belong can be a barrier to rationally evaluating evidence that is counter to the views of the group(s) we identify with.

Our brains excel at finding patterns, even when they aren’t there. It’s one reason we fall into fallacy traps.

There’s an art to making sense.

The Book of Bad Arguments is a good on-line starting point. Also online, 11th grade physics students created a Baloney Detection Infographic outlining 10 steps to test the credibility of a claim.

Social media is a mix of positives and pitfalls. Most of my social media time is spent on Facebook, and I occasionally use both Twitter and Instagram.

As a writer, I find the networking and community useful and, as a citizen, I appreciate the ability to interact with Maple Ridge residents to discuss local issues within a group (Maple Ridge Council Watch).

I use a Facebook page to organize Golden Ears Writers and promote events such as our monthly lobby nights at The ACT.

I curate my newsfeed using the follow, unfollow and block functions. Posts can be set to specific audiences. A “friends only” or even a custom friend list makes sense for more personal posts.

I regularly review my friend list. If I don’t recognize someone, I remove them.

There is also much we can demand government do on our behalf. The unethical use of personal data demands a legislative response, including stringent requirements for companies to present their Terms of Use in plain English with critical information highlighted.

And we need to change our habits. Do you agree to terms of use without reading them? I have, multiple times, but no longer.

In hindsight, advances in communication technologies and the concurrent ability to gather and analyze huge amounts of data have inevitably brought us to this place.

It’s a cliché, but true, that the more things change the more they stay the same. The tools have changed, but the motives of power and profit are timelessly human, and they aren’t going away.

We are at a turning point. Unless we collectively respond rationally, the result will be anything but funny. It’s past time to regulate April Fool’s Day to history.

Katherine Wagner is a member of the Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency, a former school trustee and member of Golden Ears Writers.

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