Recent interest in “fake news” can be an opportunity for people to think critically about media or it can be a dangerous ploy to confuse the public into thinking that there is just “fake news” and “real news.” This false dichotomy tends to suggest that “fake news” is bad and “real news” is something we don’t need to question because it is factual, objective, and THE whole truth. In between those two extremes lays much complexity and need for critical engagement with all information, communication, and entertainment.
The term “fake news” became popular during the 2016 election, when it was used to describe hoaxes that went viral. These were reports people created and disseminated for the intended purpose of fooling the public for political and/or economic gains, such as the fictitious Pizzagate and the false Papal endorsement of candidate Trump. The New York Times has called fake news, “a neologism to describe stories that are just not true” which they suggest has since been “co-opted to characterize unfavorable news” (Ember, 3 April 2017). Writing for Common Dreams, Neal Gabler (30 November, 2016) provides a more critical analysis, arguing that fake news is an attack on truth that is intended “to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world in which there is no defense against lies.” It is important to consider who would benefit from a post-truth era in which science and facts are free for any interpretation. In the absence of accountability to facts or evidence, it is highly likely that those who control the airwaves and algorithms will define reality and truth as best fits their interests.
“Fake news” and “alternative facts” can be devastating to issues in which understanding observable facts and knowing scientific truth is essential, such as anthropocentric climate change. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson challenges the current attack on science and truth in a short video called, Science in America.
For decades scientists have reported the data, facts, and evidence that human caused CO2 emissions are increasing the temperature of our planet. And yet a small powerful group of individuals have managed to create doubt in public perceptions with unfounded claims that ignore the scientific evidence. This false notion of a controversy and uncertainty, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (2010) have written about in their book, Merchants of Doubt, is not simply misinformation, it is actually a well-organized campaign of disinformation. When the president of the United States makes claims that are obviously false and completely unsubstantiated (such as crowd sizes, illegal voting, wiretapping, and climate change denials), he challenges the power of truth and honesty that the rule of law is based on. When media outlets repeat and disseminate these lies, they contribute to undermining a key foundation of democracy. These are actions that when unchecked and allowed to continue can only benefit those in power by allowing them to choose the versions of reality that best meet their political and financial interests.
The most dangerous “fake news” being repeated in commercial media, social media, and now government sponsored media is the denial of human caused climate change. Fossil fuel companies have already spent billions buying rights to drill for oil and gas all over the world, something that will be devastating to our planet if it is allowed to continue. These multibillion-dollar corporations stand to lose large amounts of money if they do not adapt their practices as countries shift to renewable energy. Even though extracting and burning fossil fuels has been proven to be the primary cause of global warming, these corporations are spending less of their fortunes on switching to cleaner renewable energy and more on trying to convince people that climate change is fake. This challenge to the truth could not be more important at this point to determine the fate of human civilization.
Therefore, we are calling for an educational commitment to critical media literacy as an essential tool to empower students to critically question media and dominant ideologies, such as unregulated capitalism, overconsumption, fossil fuel dependency, and human exploitation of nature. Critical media literacy is a theoretical framework and pedagogical approach to education that promotes social and environmental justice through an inquiry process of questioning and creating alternative media (Funk, Kellner, & Share, 2016). Students at all grade levels can learn to search for truth through accessing multiple sources, triangulating different data, and making informed decisions based on facts, evidence, and research. Critical media literacy can help educators and students see through the smoke screen of “fake news” and “alternative facts” to learn the truth about climate change and take actions before it is too late.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, ExxonMobil aired a deceptive television commercial that portrayed an environmentally conscious company, “powering the world responsibly.” In response to this attempt at greenwashing Exxon’s image, ClimateTruth.org created a parody video that exposes the hypocrisy of Exxon’s claims by using the same music and style of the original commercial with additional text that challenges their assertions of environmental responsibility. Sharing these two short videos with students can be a powerful way to engage youth in critically thinking about media messages about the environment and the role of fossil fuel companies in contributing to the problems of climate change. The Climatetruth video can be an excellent example of how students can become adbusters themselves and create their own media to challenge misleading attempts by industry and government to greenwash reality and deny the science about anthropomorphic climate change.
There are many resources available to critique climate deniers and critically analyze the news such as Project LookSharp’s (2010) Media Construction of Global Warming: A Media Literacy Curriculum Kit, The National Center for Science Education’s website and resources Dealing with Denial and the Scientific Trust Tracker. For additional resources, activities, and readings related to critical media literacy and climate change, go to on our book’s website (Beach, Share, & Webb, 2017).
Beach, R., Share, J., & Webb, A. (2017). Teaching climate change to adolescents: Reading, writing, and making a difference. New York, NY: Routledge. (Co-distributed with NCTE).
Ember, S. (3 April, 2017). This is not fake news (but don’t go by the headline). New York Times, Education Life, EDTALK. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/03/education/edlife/fake-news-and-media-literacy.html
Funk, S., Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2016). Critical media literacy as transformative pedagogy. In M. N. Yildiz & J. Keengwe (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Media Literacy in the Digital Age. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Gabler, N. (30 November 2016). Who’s really to blame for fake news? Look in the mirror, America. Common Dreams. Retrieved from http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/11/30/whos-really-blame-fake-news-look-mirror-america
Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.