How a Desautels professor is sensitizing students to fake news

Management prof. imparts information literacy to BComm students by getting them to distinguish fact from fallacy in the media.

“Fake news” is a term that has planted itself firmly in the common lexicon over the past year and its implications are serious – from swaying consumers to undermining the tenets of democracy and free debate. These profound consequences are what prompted Elena Obukhova, Assistant Professor of Strategy & Organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management, to take action in the classroom.

In fact, it was through one of her students that Prof. Obukhova first became aware of fake news. When discussing the US presidential elections, she noticed that the numbers cited by one of her students seemed dubious; this was later confirmed when she consulted the original source online. “This incident brought home to me the importance of not only teaching students ‘the facts,’ but also how to become discerning media consumers… these are skills that they will need to use in the rest of their professional and personal lives,” she says.

With the aim of imparting information literacy to her BCom students, Prof. Obukhova, with assistance from former McGill Associate Librarian Edward Bilodeau, designed an assignment about the ongoing NAFTA renegotiations that would allow them to grapple with distinguishing fact from fallacy in the media.

Students were asked to refer to an actual article about NAFTA and then write their own biased version from the perspective of a key stakeholder, such as the Conservative Party of Canada, a Mexican consumer, or an anti-globalization activist. Thereafter, Prof. Obukhova shifted the focus by asking students to write a blog post that exposed their article’s bias.

According to BCom student Sarah Block, the assignment was a valuable learning experience that taught her how to “critically evaluate word choice, omissions, and other editorial choices [that create] bias, which [she is] now more aware of when reading about current events.” Similarly, BCom student Jacob Dwinnell expressed, “This assignment develops the intangible skills that cannot be taught with a textbook and I believe that these lessons are the ones that will make the largest impact on my future.”

If the learning outcomes were positive, it is thanks to the thought that went into designing the exercise. Concerning her rationale, Prof. Obukhova  remarks, “Teaching somebody how to make a biased or a fake news story is a way to inoculate them from being susceptible to bias and fakery. If you teach someone how to do a magic card trick, it does not mean that they will go around tricking people. But it does mean that, in the future, they will not be tricked again.”

 

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