by Eilish BOSCHERT for FactCheckNI (14 March 2018)
FactCheckNI hosted “The End of Facts? Taking on Fake News” as part of the 2018 Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics and Democracy Day at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.
The event featured Hala Heenan, Jake Lowry, and Shannon McKeown-Gilmore — three local students from Methodist College Belfast who recently won the Political Studies Association’s 2017 Student Video Competition with their satirical video on ‘fake news’ and fact-checking.
Opening the event, FactCheckNI editor, Allan Leonard, spoke about the profound impact FactCheckNI has had since its launch in 2016. The organisation functions in two parts: writing fact-checked claim articles, and training the general populace to be fact-checkers. So far, FactCheckNI has trained over 1,000 people in local schools and communities, 500 of which are Methody students like Hala, Jake, and Shannon.
The 4-minute film, which was screened for the audience, began with a depiction of the popular BBC game show University Challenge. The moderator asks which US president had the largest inaugural crowd, to which the students respond, “Barack Obama”. They lose the game, however, as the moderator claims that the correct answer is Donald Trump.
The video transitions to a breaking news report on the University Challenge dispute caused by the sudden and overwhelming ‘fake news’ phenomenon. But as the ‘reporter’ stresses: “fake news is not as modern as we may think.” In fact, the news reporters trace fake news back between Marc Antony and Octavian in the Final War of the Roman Republic in 32 BC — providing a humorous example of the longevity of misinformation.
While their video maintained a satirical, lighthearted tone regarding topical issues, the students highlighted some very serious implications of ‘fake news’, otherwise known as propaganda. In the Q&A panel following the video, Lowry stressed that fake news can be seen throughout history — a clear example of which would be the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust. This indicates the real implications of spreading false information on a national, or international, platform. It has the capacity to influence people’s opinions and change lives.
What started out as a fun project between friends — “for the craic”, as Heenan put it — quickly turned into attending the PSA dinner with MPs in London, discussing how media truly does influence the minds of the public, and furthermore, how young people have the capacity to stand out and make a difference.
Many in the audience voiced their relief and reassurance that young people were invested in fact-checking in an age when we are constantly bombarded with information. Presently, there is no formal curriculum on fact-checking in Northern Ireland, but there should be, it was argued. All three students advocated for further development of critical-thinking skills in schools. McKeown-Gilmore argued that adapting the existing curriculum to accommodate lessons on sourcing and credibility is not only feasible, but necessary.
Closing the event, co-founder Enda Young encouraged the audience to examine ways that the digital world interacts with the real world. On what information do we base our most important decisions? On bots and algorithms designed to influence us? ‘Fake News’ has become part of our lexicon; indeed, opinions are often presented to us as facts, but it is up to us to distinguish the two.
In order to combat ‘fake news’ and other forms of propaganda, Young reminded us of the five essential aspects of critical thinking: Who? What? Where? When? Why? To analyse images and videos, there are also many free, open-source resources, such as TinEye.com and Amnesty International’s Youtube DataViewer.
The truth should never be politicised. As Leonard stated, FactCheckNI is not on a crusade to change people’s values or belief systems, they are merely encouraging people to understand the difference between opinion and fact and enhance critical thinking. Their ultimate goal is to have fact-checking taught in every school in Northern Ireland.
If you’d like to invite Fact Check NI to your local school, business, or community centre for a (currently) free training session, you can contact them on Twitter (@FactCheckNI) or at their website: http://www.factcheckni.org/