by Vance Naftal
Vance is an international relations Major from Baltimore, MD. Vance chose to write about the negative effects that misleading/false news stories can have on an individual, especially when in college, because he “sees society moving farther and farther away from truth and leaning more into sentiments based on emotions — which is directly at odds with the point of a higher education.” Vance started college at 16 years old. At 17, he decided to take a gap year (which became a gap of 4 years) to enter the workforce. At 21, he found himself yearning to be a part of an academic institution again and transferred to UMass Boston, as he “missed learning in a social setting surrounded by peers with different opinions and cultures.” He writes that “transferring to UMass Boston was the best decision I’ve ever made” and that “the community at UMass Boston is truly an accurate picture of what the community of Eastern Massachusetts looks like, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
During the events leading up to the presidential election of 2016, many of the problems endemic to the early 21st century were unearthed and displayed for all Americans to see. On one side we had cold hard facts, and on another side, we had a full-scale attack on those facts and the people that benefited from them. The campaign of Donald Trump suspended the neoliberal era style of policy debate and replaced it with unorganized attacks on credibility. The election of Trump may have been a shock to many Americans, but his disregard of facts in order to appease a voter base largely uninformed on the issues of the election was an example of opportunism within the new media environment that politicians should have started paying attention to long ago.
The reality of the modern era is that the bulk of an individual’s free time is spent on the internet. The internet does not treat all people equally. It has been crafted so that each person’s experience is tailor-made specifically for them. A series of algorithms show content to consumers that makes them feel comfortable and does not at any point challenge their beliefs. This means that if a person starts using the internet with a certain political stance, their internet experience will revolve around content that shares those same views. This, more often than not, leads consumers to absorb poorly sourced, false information or “fake news.” This fake news is seriously harmful to society and in many cases negates or skews the knowledge students absorb while undergoing higher education which has led modern society to become more polarized than ever.
Let me present an example of how fake news exists within a conversation with the average person. Last week, while I was working my shift managing a CVS, I had a conversation with an older woman who was very concerned for her safety. Upon inquiring why she was concerned, she informed me that there were thousands of Haitian “drug traffickers” at our Texas border on the verge of invading our country. I respectfully declined any further talk of this, I could tell the conversation was about to take a racist turn for the worse, but I couldn’t help but find myself curious at the notion of thousands of invaders at the Texas border. Upon researching this topic further, I found that around 12,000 Haitian refugees are seeking asylum, at the time of me writing this, and this is a result of significant civil unrest following the assassination of the Haitian president (Alden). As a member of the United Nations, the United States guarantees the right of asylum to refugees, so why was this event framed as an “invasion” by this frightened woman’s source? The simple answer is fake news. Unfortunately, the infiltration of fake news within society does not stop with people who have never received a higher education. Fake news has, in fact, rooted itself within the minds of students, who should theoretically question these sources as well.
People have always found ways to exploit the gullibility of the masses to their benefit, but this is far simpler in the 2020s than it has ever been before. We now live in a world where most people learn the bulk of their common knowledge from informal online sources rather than peer reviewed journals. Stephan Lewandowsky writes in an article published by Science Direct, “In this world, power lies with those most vocal and influential on social media: from celebrities and big corporations to botnet puppeteers who can mobilize millions of tweetbots or sock puppets… experts are derided as untrustworthy or elitist whenever their reported facts threaten the rule of the well-financed or the prejudices of the uninformed.” (Lewandowsky et al. 355) Simply put, the political/social climate has become so that to disagree with a galvanized individual using facts is equal to arrogance, while simply believing whatever your news source of preference provides you is “free thought.” While being inherently backwards, reason has nothing to do with it. This is a result of an American populace that has experienced more crises in recent memory than it can keep track of. Most people often have very little conception of the roots of these crises, so they turn to news sources that make them feel comfortably informed.
In order to understand the context in which modern American students live within, we must first discuss the standard of information accepted as knowledge in the 2020s. So how does an uninformed person find a source, and why are many of these sources harmful? The answer to this question lies within a phrase that has become an idiom within the last 20 years: Google it. Nowadays, when most people do not know something, they simply conduct a Google Search to find an answer. For questions with simple answers like “How many feet are in a yard?” or “What year did World War II begin?” there will be pretty unanimous answers. On the other hand, in cases where answers tend to involve multiple, at times subjective factors, like: “Why did Russia annex Crimea in 2014,” or “Was Abraham Lincoln an honest person?” Googling something leads to often convoluted, opinion-based answers.
The problem with this is not rooted in the fact that there is bad information. There has always been bad information out there. In fact, many of the presidential elections of the late 19th and early 20th centuries resembled the chaos of the 2016 election. The issue is that, in a world where nearly all people have access to information that is correct, false information still finds a way to prevail. This is a result of something called “search engine optimization” or “SEO.” SEO is essentially a term used to describe the way that algorithms figure out what content people “should” consume on the internet. Search engines like Google are companies; they are not charities. While many people may assume that the ease of access to Google means that Google does not draw profits from simple searches, that is not entirely correct. Google’s search engine profits are mainly derived from ads that companies submit to be displayed to people using Google. Companies want to see profits coming in from their Google ads in order to continue paying Google for their services. In order for those companies to have a higher chance of making a sale from their ads, Google has to do some leg work. This is what the algorithms are used for. Google ads are not going to try to push swim trunks to someone who lives in Alaska. They would instead display ads prioritizing cold weather items like road salt or antifreeze (Pennycook and Rand 2522).
This works the same way for news services. Chances are that if someone uses Google to read left-wing news sources like NBC and CNN, they would stay away from right-wing news sources like FOX. Google knows this. If someone regularly reads FOX articles, Google will advertise more right-wing sources giving a consumer a very one-sided view on how the world works, eliminating all unsolicited access to alternative opinions. At first, this may not seem like an issue. After all, if someone likes FOX, chances are they would never click on NBC or CNN anyways. I would tend to agree with this too. The problem begins when the news service advertisements gradually become more and more polarized leading people towards sources that are downright conspiratorial – which is exactly how the Google algorithm is programmed. When this becomes the standard of information that floods a person’s Google search, quick Google searches no longer provide factual answers to somewhat ambiguous questions. They instead provide highly partisan, often poorly sourced answers that hold no bearing in the realm of academia or truth in general (Pennycook and Rand 2523). This will not be apparent to the consumer though. They will think that their sources are as accurate as an academic journal. They looked for an answer: they Googled it! That is the standard of finding answers in the 2020s.
One such fallacious source is the popular right-wing outlet called Prager University or PragerU. Despite the name, PragerU is not an accredited institution and does not provide any sort of academic classroom setting online or in person. Its main message opposes immigration and downplays crises like the Coronavirus, climate change, and institutionalized discrimination. These political motives result in PragerU essentially being a right-wing tabloid rather than a credible news source. University of New Mexico PhD student/historian, Joseph Hall-Patton, who has an MA in History from California Polytechnic State University took an in-depth look at one of PragerU’s videos about “myths” commonly associated with slavery. Within his observation of the video in question, Patton pointed out that nearly every point that was made in the video was historically incorrect and strewn with made up facts or fake news. One of Hall-Patton’s major points was that PragerU’s sources were either nonexistent or lacking credibility altogether. For example, one source claimed to be referencing a “renowned historian” who Hall-Patton, a professional historian, had never heard of. Upon looking up the historian, he found that their source was a highly controversial figure with little renown to speak of within the academic community. Another issue Hall-Patton ran into while checking PragerU’s sources was that they had sourced material that was completely irrelevant to their video claiming that it backed up the facts stated (Hall-Patton). For example, let’s say that I was talking about Amazonian army ants for a nature video, but when looking at my sources for said video, it was discovered that I sourced an academic journal about North American fire ants. For an individual rushing to finish a high school paper, that may be understandable if not forgivable, but for a self-purported news source, that is an unacceptable error that dismantles academic integrity and prestige.
When it comes down to it, what does this mean for the college student of the 21st century? Well, a Boston based news station, WGBH, surveyed a sample group of students and found that 59% of them believed that there was a partisan divide on campus. Of that 59%, 77% identified as liberal and 15% identified as conservative (Parker). These students did not develop their political views on campus. They arrived with them. Before even stepping foot on a college campus, they had been fed by Google’s revenue driven algorithm to read the material that had led them to their current political stance. There is one major reason why this is problematic. University is supposed to be a space where learning is nurtured and grown, but when students arrive with closed minds (no matter how open-minded their sources tell them they are) unable to receive any information to the contrary of what they have absorbed as literal children, they are unable to nurture or grow any new perspectives at all. While news has always been highly partisan, we are now living within an era in which the tools we use to obtain news are programmed to push a malleable mind further and further away from reason into a realm of conspiracy (Rhodes 14).
Let’s take a look at the subject of international relations as an example. There are three main political theories within international relations: Liberalism, Realism, and Marxism. Liberalism tends to be a moderate to center right perspective, Realism is conservative, and Marxism is far left. The goal of an international relations curriculum would be to adequately teach the functions, roles, and beliefs of all of these theories as objectively as possible leading students to eventually discover their own beliefs at some point, but when students arrive with fallacious notions of what these theories actually are and have already shut down any desire to engage in discourse on the matter, the purpose of education has essentially gone down the drain.
The thing about polarity is that it eliminates opportunities for innovative compromise. Universities are supposed to be places that create a safe space for thinking outside of the box before one enters the professional world. Many times, these thoughts can lead to relationships and innovations that can shift the way society functions for the better, but this can only occur if the student body as a whole is open to think outside of the box. The reality of the internet is that it strives to put everyone within a box to drive profits within its own sector. With the exponential growth and pull towards fake news outlets, this has begun to create a closed-minded society without any real desire to change its bad habits and commence social progress. I believe that if this trend of polarization does not change soon, constructive education may enter a dark age where very few actually receive any benefit from higher learning at all.
Alden, Edward. “Why Are Haitian Migrants Gathering at the U.S. Border?” Council on Foreign Relations, 1 Oct. 2021.
Hall-Patton, Joseph. “Debunking PragerU’s ‘History of Slavery’ With Candace Owens.” YouTube, uploaded by The Cynical Historian, 14 Oct. 2021.
Lewandowsky, Stephan, et al. “Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the ‘Post-Truth’ Era.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, vol. 6, no. 4, 2017, pp. 353–69.
Parker, Kim. “The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education.” Pew Research Center, 2019.
Pennycook, Gordon, and David G. Rand. “Fighting Misinformation on Social Media Using Crowdsourced Judgments of News Source Quality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 7, 2019, pp. 2521–26.
Rhodes, Samuel C. “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fake News: How Social Media Conditions Individuals to Be Less Critical of Political Misinformation.” Political Communication, vol. 39, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1–22.