From doctored videos of political speeches on social media to unsubstantiated claims about the presidential election results to conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, it seems 2020 was a wild ride for everyone consuming media and trying to determine fact from fiction.
A new pop-up course coming in the fall focuses on media bias and aims to help students understand the psychology of why people believe in misinformation and conspiracy. The offering, the third pop-up class the Office of Academic Innovation has hosted, is titled “Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics: Confronting the Threats of Misinformation, Conspiracy Theories and Polarization” (CPU 1540).
Marketing Assistant Professor Randy Stein, Political Science Associate Professor Neil Chaturvedi and Shonn Haren, coordinator of instruction at the University Library, will teach the 15-week, 3-unit course.
Stein, whose area of research includes the nature of belief and how people know what’s true and what’s not, came up with the idea for the pop-up course, pitched it to Olukemi Sawyerr, associate vice president for academic innovation, and recruited Haren and Chaturvedi to teach it with him.
“I’ve noticed that when I talk to students and have talked about media as a business, they ask me questions like ‘How do you avoid bias in media sources?’” Stein said. “I tell them if that’s really your goal, you’re not going to look at anything because nothing is completely unbiased.”
The key is to get students to understand this and to instead, learn how to recognize misinformation when they see it.
“The question isn’t so much avoiding bias, but avoiding harmful BS,” Stein said. “It tends to announce itself pretty loudly once you’re listening. We’re trying to help students enter the land of good information.”
The course will cover how to navigate media bias, look at the psychology of why people believe in misinformation and conspiracy and examine the technologies and politics that are driving us apart.
Chaturvedi said that for a political science professor, it’s always some form of how did we get here.
“You hear the word tribalism used in journalism where everyone is in their own little bubble and not listening to each other anymore or not exchanging ideas in the same way,” he said. “We take for granted that this has slowly been happening since the 1970s. In the course, we’ll walk students through all of the things that led up to this point.”
It’s not difficult for students to self-select out of mainstream news and create an environment that allows them to accept that stories critical of their side, their candidate or their perspective are fake news, he added.
Haren has done workshops on fake news and conspiracy theories for the library. He has worked with Stein on a few projects and interviewed him for a podcast on why people believe what’s obviously not true a couple of years ago.
“Fake news is not new at all,” Haren said. “If we’re going to talk about the fact that fake news is kind of an interesting conglomeration of conspiracy theories and propaganda that has been weaponized by the internet, then there are elements of fake news that are old as time itself. You can look at propaganda that was carved in stele by Bronze Age rulers that’s still available for us today.”
In his portion of the course, Haren will use tactics such as lateral reading, which involves searching for information about a source while reading, and cross checking to determine the accuracy of a story to help students cut through misinformation. He also will talk about journalistic ethics and have students compile a media diet journal to track where they get their news.
The course, as a whole, is about strategies, not solutions, Haren said.
“Until human beings stop lying, there is no solution to fake news,” he said. “I don’t foresee that happening any time soon. Mostly, these strategies are about identifying these kinds of things, so you won’t be deceived yourself and to recognize how these things work and recognize how you determine the truth from the story.”
Registration for the course, which will be taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 2:15 p.m., begins Monday, April 19 for priority and Wednesday, April 21 for general. Although students will register on BroncoDirect for one of the three sections with a specific professor, students will be taught by each professor during the course. Visit the Office of Academic Innovation website for more information on how to sign up for the course.