Fake News: A Day-long Timeline of Unquestioned Algorithm-Driven Mayhem

4:20 AM

My interaction with media begins the moment I get out of bed (this is a generous description – it is more akin to a military crawl with more cursing).  I am ashamed to say it, but after regaining consciousness I immediately open the YouTube app on my phone and start watching videos while I get ready for the gym.  I do not spend a lot of time deciding what content I will consume as there is always a new suggestion waiting for me in the que.   I watch 3-5 videos while brushing my teeth, packing my lunch, eating breakfast, and avoiding eye contact with the dishwasher that needs to be unloaded.  Video selection is automatic, the app continually plays new content after the previous video has concluded.

This is incredibly problematic for several reasons (my use of media, not the dishwasher).  A significant amount of my media consumption is being deferred to an AI-enhanced algorithm operated by YouTube.  Author Kevin Roose described YouTube’s AI algorithm, called Reinforce, as a “long-term addiction machine.”  It works by increasing engagement by suggesting increasingly sensationalized videos to keep users watching.  In my context it has been a stunning success.  What worries me is how this is gradually affecting my personal perspectives on the world.  How long can you listen to the lyrics until you start memorizing the song?  As Kim pointed in small group discussion one cannot get a broad sense of the world living within a filter bubble.

8:00 AM

My next significant interaction with media occurs a half hour before a tidal wave of children arrive at my door seeking assignment extensions.  Armed with medically unsound amounts of caffeine I scan through various news websites including (but not limited to) The Regina Leader Post, CBC Saskatchewan, BBC World News, Reuters, and CNN.  While I consider most of the news sites reputable, I am slightly embarrassed that I have (on occasion) clicked on “sponsored” content.  These stories are merely ads masquerading as stories, and while most of them are clearly labelled, the line is becoming blurrier.

This raises a question: if a teacher who is trained in media literacy education can be easily fooled, what chance does a student in elementary or high school have?  In a 2018 study Malita and Grossneck found that 91.6% of students indicated that they could not differentiate between misleading news stories and genuine content.  Furthermore, they found that most children in their study relied on search engine rankings to vet their sources.  This is not just marketing run amok, but an existential threat to our democracy.  Evidence of this is not hard to find.  In a sensitive time for education in Saskatchewan several false news stories have made the rounds undermining the credibility of teachers and school divisions (some individuals believed litter boxes were being placed in elementary schools for students identifying as “furries”).  Apparently, it is not just the students (and certain verbose education bloggers) being fooled.

12:00 PM

Lunch!  A time for fellowship, friendship, and the lively exchange of ideas with your colleagues!

Or instead, a time to stare into the endless abyss of your internet enabled device.  To each their own.  Lunch is for endlessly scanning Facebook marketplace or eBay for electronic gadgets that I cannot afford and do not need.  At this point I am not sure why I want them, but the algorithm fueled by social media seems very adept at suggesting new computer parts, kitchen gadgets (who does not need a third air fryer?), and cat toys.  It is also during this time that my teaching friends and I share videos in a scene that is reminiscent of the types of behaviours we deride students for engaging in.  A friend of mine is particularly fond of Arnold Schwarzenegger deep fake videos (YouTube creator Brian Monarch is very adept at creating them).  I would be lying if I said that I did not find these entertaining, but as George pointed out this technology has a dark side.  Deep fakes powered, while useful for keeping socially awkward educators from engaging in reflection as they rapidly approach middle age, have undermined trust in video evidence as we now can make any public figure say what we want.  This has led to an erosion in public trust as well as enabling focused disinformation campaigns.  As George put it “seeing is no longer believing.”

8:00 PM

Supper is done.  Martial arts classes are over.  Time to put on my disguise as an educated research reader to prepare for a master’s class discussion.  All the searching techniques that I have neglected throughout the day will now be employed.  Media literacy is activated.  Skepticism and critical thinking powers are set to maximum levels.  Only peer reviewed research (confirmed from lateral reading and multiple sources) will be deemed credible.  Smugness flows.  Time to write a blog entry.  I would never be taken in by media.  Detecting baloney is what I do.  I was reading Snopes years ago.  I always ask who wrote an article, and question their motivations.  But maybe I should check Amazon one more time?  My air fryer is getting old, and I did see a double basket one for sale…

And therein lies the contradiction.  My relationship with media reminds me of how alcoholics speak about drinking.  I am in control. I could quit anytime I want.  I would not miss it.  I can put of a thin veneer when the time calls for it, but I am just as bad as some of my students.



One thought on “Fake News: A Day-long Timeline of Unquestioned Algorithm-Driven Mayhem

  1. Great post, Matt. I think you hit the nail on the head for many of us – the contradictions that are abound in our relationship with media are staggering. I too like to think that I am somehow “above” the algorithms and endless scrolling that I see in many of my students, however I am just as much a part of it. It simply manifests in a much different way.

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