In the South, there’s an old saying, “The Devil is a liar.” It is used in a lot of different contexts, but it is mostly used when a situation is turning sour. What the saying means generally is: when someone has to resort to disinformation, there’s probably something bad at the core of what’s going on. Lies and deception are – and have always been – tools for manipulating people into allowing what they otherwise would not and into acting in ways that are contrary to what they know as good and right. Even in a super-fast world where quality is measured in gigabytes, this age-old concept lies at the heart of the “fake news.”
Last week, the PBS NewsHour ran a story about teaching students how to recognize “fake news.” I knew it would be my kind of reporting when Judy Woodruff led off by clarifying that, by “fake news,” she meant “false information disguised as a legitimate news story, not reporting that people dislike for political reasons.”
During the report, third-grade students read news stories from the 1940s and identified rhetoric used to perpetrate the Japanese internment camps during World War II. They were shown by their teacher how to pick up on language that insinuates and castigates. Even children this young, ages 8 or 9, must be taught to see how language can be used to convince fearful people to set aside their principles and come along.
Then, we listen as a young Democratic state senator extols the virtues of honesty in government. This young politician has worked to pass laws in his state that will urge forward an honest and transparent comprehension of the issues. He said,
Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, right or left, we want people to go into the voting booth educated and prepared to make the best decision for our communities. And if people can’t discern fake information from real information, that really corrodes the basic institutions of our democracy.
As a teacher myself, I respect that we have to frame our lessons (and our laws) using modern terms, like “media literacy” and “critical thinking” and “fake news,” which students recognize as relevant to their own lives, but this issue of “fake news” goes deeper, to the most fundamental ideals expressed in the most ancient lessons, like “The Devil is a liar.” No matter one’s modern political leaning, we all have a duty to discern the truth from lies, because the thought processes and choices involved in that duty go to the heart of valuing what is good in human life: peace, civilization, safety, cooperation— all of which require honesty.