Decoding the Truth: Critical Thinking 101
Post-truth. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word of 2016. The year of rising populism, Brexit, terrorist threats in Europe, Donald Trump, and the U.S. election.
Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objectives facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion,” post-truth has been shaping our societies, debates on global events, and our online interaction significantly over the past year.
With the current debate about “fake news” and Facebook algorithms, we have become aware that the information we see on the internet—but also on television—is highly selective. Words like “filter-bubbles” and “echo-chambers” have entered the mainstream discourse.
Our exposure to one-sided narratives and selective ideas impacts our societies. Neither terrorism, nor Brexit, nor the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populism are isolated events. These are symptoms of a global social phenomenon of exclusive thinking and fear. Let’s take an example observed in North America and Europe. We are sometimes told, or we believe, that Islam and Western values are incompatible (here are examples in the UK and France), or that the influx of migrants from the Middle East will increase risks of terrorism. We hear it from the news and sometimes from politicians, it shows up in our online newsfeed and we pick it up from colleagues, family members and friends. These voices are everywhere. And the impact is divisive.
As a Pew Research report shows, negative ratings for Muslims have increased in the UK, France, Spain, and Italy as well as many eastern European nations such as Hungary. In the US, the FBI has shown an increase in hate crimes against American Muslims during the Presidential elections and following terrorist attacks in the US and Europe. Meanwhile, extremist groups and individuals use these beliefs and incidents to argue that “the West is trying to destroy Islam.”
While one-sided narratives are often the loudest, they are not accurate—they drown out the facts and obscure nuanced opinions. The consequences are serious. It hurts our understanding of the world and our compassion towards others, it creates hostilities and rifts in our societies, a leads to a “Disunited States of America.”
While social media networks are certainly not the cause of the current rise in populism and xenophobia, they do serve as amplifiers and a platform for hateful narratives and propaganda. To take extreme examples, radical and terrorist groups such as ISIS have been recruiting via Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, and the German far-right movement Pegida has been able to organize its movement on Facebook.
So, who should be held responsible for the destructive tendencies we observe on social media? We blame Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg for fake news. We blame Twitter and Telegram for letting terrorists spread their propaganda online. But in doing so, we ignore a basic problem: the audience also has a responsibility. We are losing our ability to think critically, and instead we accept simplistic narratives. Whether a “digital immigrant” or a “digital native,” it is important to understand that we are all as much part of the problem as we are part of the solution.
If we want to re-establish a productive and peaceful social dialogue, we have to start thinking critically. That means checking the facts instead of copy-pasting. It means confronting inconvenient truth(s) and listening to the opposing side instead of staying in our comfortable bubble. This is particularly urgent for digital natives, young people born with a phone or tablet in their hand who don’t hesitate to post content online without questioning it.
So how do we help our youth become responsible digital citizens in “post-truth” world? First and foremost, teaching them to think twice about what they hear and read both on and offline.
I am part of a group of young activists in Montreal that founded the CONTRA project, an initiative to combat extremism and radicalization by teaching critical thinking and information-checking to young people. Our bottom-up approach takes place both online and offline in the classroom. CONTRA seeks to decode the truth by sharing infographics and videos online, and by creating interactive toolkits. Students are also encouraged to develop their content. By getting them creatively engaged, we hope to raise awareness about the existence of fake news, hate speech and propaganda on and offline. We hope to open their minds to other ideas and to accept the fact that there is no single truth. The amount of sources and data available today makes the task of verifying content more arduous than ever, but knowing the impact of extreme narrative and conspiracy theories, this work must be done.
New technologies have great potential. The internet and social media have dramatically changed the way we inform ourselves and communicate with each other. But with this comes new responsibilities. The fact that “post-truth” was chosen as the word of the year should be a sound of alarm that we must act now to put an end to our fading critical thinking.
Post-truth should not come to define our reality.