Fake News Around the Harkness Table

This past Tuesday was Election Day in New Jersey. As IV and V Formers register to vote in the 2020 primaries and general election, they have a civic duty to vote based on well-informed opinion.

This past Tuesday was Election Day in New Jersey. As IV and V Formers register to vote in the 2020 primaries and general election, they have a civic duty to vote based on well-informed opinion. But who decides what “well-informed” means? In fact, popular institutions can publish unreliable information, or “fake news,” an example being the Urban Outfitter’s 2016 Election Guide which incorrectly stated that voters needed a voter registration card in order to vote. The proliferation of “fake news” threatens the future of free societies. A free society is based on reasonably knowledgeable voters electing candidates who will direct public policy. If the public is left floundering in a muddle of competing voices, narratives, and images with no tools to evaluate their veracity, then it is unlikely that good ideas will be heard or good leaders elected. Ill-informed free societies may give way to the rise of repression in the name of security, sliding into ungovernable chaos.

What is different about today’s news platforms compared to older forms of mass media is the sheer number of individuals who are sources of “news.” It has become cost-free to send out a tweet or upload a live video or forward some snippet of news to thousands. What has not really changed is human biases with which people tend to accept information they agree with and disregard contrary information. This new flood of information has made it easier for people to select and believe the “news” they agree with. Today, we find ourselves in a situation where not only do different groups of people have different opinions, but also have different facts. Reasonable debate leading to a consensus becomes virtually impossible.

The issue of “fake news” transcends media. At Lawrenceville, sometimes Harkness can exist as echo chambers of feelings rather than informed debate. In this sense, Harkness can act as a double-edged sword. When used correctly, when students prepare well and engage with their full effort, Harkness becomes a productive tool to access meaningful and wide-ranging views. However, when we stumble into class with hastily skimmed reading, when we agree with arguments without bothering to look at the evidence in the text out of convenience, we always run the risk of creating our own “fake news” around the Harkness table. We create views that may not be as informed as they should be—assumptions that are founded in their own world of “facts.”

For example, several Town Hall meetings that were held in the past few years perpetuated the idea of fake news on campus. Rather than succeeding in their ultimate goal of promoting civil discourse, the forums consistently resulted in stalemates between two obstinate student groups, as participants refused to recognize the validity of viewpoints other than their own. Around the table, the implications of campus “fake news” become analogous with real-world “fake news.” Just as a “fake news” Harkness discussion leads to no intellectual enrichment, changes made on the basis of real-world “fake news” can have serious consequences, whether it be false voter information from Urban Outfitters or manufactured footage of Nancy Pelosi intoxicated. Regardless of scale, we continue to struggle with discerning misinformation from fact-based truth.

Though a solution to “fake news” remains elusive, we can start small around the Harkness table. Harkness succeeds with deliberate thinking, which can be manifested in intentionally distinguishing between opinion and fact, with both always coupled with references and evidence. It may not seem like much, but the effort taken to look up that confusing word in the reading, to try to understand the author’s views, is the difference between informed and uninformed views. If we can foster a capability to discern “fake news” around the Harkness table, then we can translate our skills as Lawrentians to the greater community.

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