You are here

Carl Bergstrom on making media literacy great again

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 10:00

[From the Columbia Journalism Review, written by Michael Rosenwald]

A basic understanding of where news comes from is back on the syllabus as students navigate an increasingly bewildering media environment.

Professor Carl T. Bergstrom began his first lecture for INFO198 at the University of Washington with a declaration about America. “There is so much bullshit,” he said, looking up at 160 students last spring. “We are drowning in it.” Bergstrom’s audience didn’t seem surprised or outraged by his phraseology. They had surely heard that word before, but they no doubt also recognized it from the title in the course catalog: “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.”

As Bergstrom spoke, a picture of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appeared on a screen behind him, followed moments later by a photo of a young woman typing on her phone. “The average American spends nearly an hour a day on Facebook,” he said. “Doing what? Mostly spreading bullshit.” The students laughed. Then Bergstrom shouted, “Enough! Enough bullshit! We are tired of this.”

That roughly explains how Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist, wound up in a lecture hall declaring war on fake news. He and his colleague Jevin West, a data science professor and Biology alum, launched the class this past spring, not long after hoax stories, Russian bots, and clickbait headlines wreaked havoc on the US electoral process. The professors were also concerned about misleading science stories, journalism by press release, and the way interest groups and corporations twist data. The class filled up in less than a minute, with several hundred students turned away.

“We wanted to teach students how to evaluate the onslaught of information in their lives,” West tells CJR. “There’s information warfare going on right now.”

As a data expert, West lives in a world where algorithms and machine learning solve human problems. He is encouraged that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are rolling out such tools to eradicate fake news and surface trustworthy content. But he knows that ones and zeros alone can’t solve the problem.

Later in the semester, West and Bergstrom offered students a striking reason why, examining a fake news story about vaccines causing shaken baby syndrome. The claim was so absurd that literally no content existed online to refute it. Searching Google for this phrase—“do vaccinations cause shaken baby syndrome?”—only turned up links to other bogus websites that repeated and expanded on the invented data.

“We need a cultural solution as well,” West tells CJR. “That’s why we’re doing this.”

At least a dozen universities around the country have launched or are planning similar classes, using “Calling Bullshit” and curriculum from Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy as templates. There has been a burst of interest in secondary education as well, with legislators in at least 15 states introducing or recently passing laws mandating digitally focused media literacy instruction in public schools.


Read the full article in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Fields of interest: