Seeing the wood for the trees: how critical thinking can help us in the fake news era

It is said all the time: technology has created an age of immediate gratification. Generation Y wants it all and they want it now; whether that is a date, a taxi, or up to the second updates on a political rally on the other side of the world. But what does this continual availability of information mean for the quality of the content? In our haste to cry ‘Now! Now! Now!’ are we forgetting to ask ‘Who? Why? How?’

The speed at which we expect to receive information can be seen in the changing statistics analysing how people get the news. A study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism this year, found that 51% of Americans surveyed used social media for news with messaging apps for news also on the rise. Moreover, 56% of people use a mobile device to access the news.[1] This change in the manner of consumption reflects our expectations for real-time updates and, particularly on social media, our preference for it in small, manageable sound bites. As Timothy Egan, New York Times correspondent, resignedly wrote“We think in McNugget time. The trash flows, unfiltered, along with the relevant stuff, in the eternal stream.”[2]

With everything at our fingertips, it is easy to get taken in by inaccurate or even dishonest content. Misinformation is by no means a new occurrence; what is alarmingly more prevalent, however, is disinformation- the dissemination of false information intended to deceive- and this all ties into the continual availability of content particularly due to social media.

With trust in conventional news outlets apparently in decline, consumers turn increasingly to alternative sources such as Twitter, Facebook or Reddit. Our automatic assumption might be that, because we are able to pick and choose the articles that we read, we are taking a more active role in content consumption. However, as Simon Yates, Director at the Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool notes, ‘the economics of social media favour gossip, novelty, speed, and sharability.’ This means we are much more likely to engage with content that provokes a strong initial response in us. This is exacerbated by filter bubbles and digital echo chambers. These are internet spaces caused by algorithms used by platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest to promote content that it calculates we will enjoy or agree with, thereby limiting the variety of opinions and perspectives we come into contact with.

How then, are we to see the wood for the trees? As the article published by Tes Magazine this month agrees,[3] critical thinking is pivotal in helping us to identify fake news and hoaxes.

PACIER - Macat Critical Thinking Blog

Critical thinkers are able to utilise the PACIER Skills– six thinking skills that combine to create a more rigorous approach to evidence. They are: Problem-solving, Analysis, Creative thinking, Interpretation, Evaluation, Reasoning. Through these, we are able to identify erroneous reasoning, evaluate the validity of supporting evidence, assess the credibility of sources, and appraise the conclusions drawn.

In the context of fake news, the PACIER skills facilitate an understanding of the flexibility of language and the extent to which phrasal variations are vital to our understanding. With platforms like Twitter restricting characters, we must be alert to the reasons those words have been selected. This is particularly significant with regard to fake news.  As a recent study conducted by the CCSD suggests that 59% of links shared on social media are not actually read first.[4] This statistic exposes the power of the headline, and suggests the extent to which many are forming judgements based solely on attention grabbing, and likely bias, one-liners.

For example, below are two British Newspapers covering the same thing on their front page:

The Times, 5th September 2017

The Times Newspaper clipping - Macat Critical Thinking Blog

The Times’ headline places focus on Teresa May and by stressing her agency while the use of ‘rebels’ and ‘fear’ give a sense of unrest and lack of unity.

The I Paper, 5th September 2017

I Newspaper clipping - Macat Critical Thinking Blog

The I Paper does not single out any one person and, while acknowledging unrest says that the Tories are looking to ‘heal’ thereby suggesting that there is a degree of conciliatory politics and an emphasis on a shared purpose in the Brexit Bill.

The Times’ headline places focus on Teresa May and by stressing her agency while the use of ‘rebels’ and ‘fear’ give a sense of unrest and lack of unity.The I Paper does not single out any one person and, while acknowledging unrest says that the Tories are looking to ‘heal’ thereby suggesting that there is a degree of conciliatory politics and an emphasis on a shared purpose in the Brexit Bill.

It’s not that difficult then, to smuggle partisan interpretations of events past readers.

So what now?

Are the PACIER skills just a way of confirming the existence ‘fake news’?

Arguably no. Instead, critical thinking encourages a greater understanding of nuance, not simply of information, but also of the groups of people that information affects, and the individuals within those groups. In other words, we are not simply agreeing or disagreeing but understanding and drawing conclusions.

Perhaps this has been the greatest damage the media focus on fake news has done; it has allowed people to brand things ‘wrong’ or ‘untrue’ as a way of disregarding items without engaging with them. It is this culture of binaries- right/wrong, left/right, real/fake- that Maha Bali feels we need to guard against, and instead nurture ‘cross-cultural learning attitudes and skills that help make our knee-jerk reactions to news in general more socially just and empathetic.”[5] This is when we need to promote critical thinking, which, in its truest form, allows for independence of thought and constructive debate.

[1] Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ‘Digital News Report 2017’,

[2] Timothy Egan, ‘The Eight-Second Attention Span, The New York Times, viewed 8th September 2017, www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html.

[3] Diane Halpern and Heather Butler, ‘Teachers understand critical thinking? That’s fake news’, Tes Magazine, viewed 1st September 2017, www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/teachers-understand-critical-thinking-thats-fake-news

[4] Maksym Gabielkov, Arthi Ramachandran, Augustin Chaintreau, Arnaud Legout, ‘Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?’, ACM SIGMETRICS / IFIP Performance 2016, viewed 6th September 2017, https://hal.inria.fr/hal-01281190

[5] Maha Bali, ‘Fake News: Not Your Main Problem, DML Central, viewed 8th September 2017, dmlcentral.net/fake-news-not-main-problem/?utm_source=campaignmonitor.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Vol5.

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