• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.

Title

Being Fooled by the Gorilla Channel

The importance of teaching web literacy.

January 16, 2018
 
 

 

For longer than I would like to admit, I was fooled by the original “gorilla channel” tweet.

It was really only a minute or two, tops, but that time shouldn’t have existed at all because the “excerpt” from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is so obviously a joke, not quite as bad as mistaking an article in The Onion for real, but somewhere in that realm.

My “defense” is that it was a bit of a perfect storm when my defenses were down and I also self-corrected pretty quickly. Still, a post-mortem:

1. I was not previously aware of pixelatedboat and the fact that it is the Twitter feed of comic artist Ben Ward who traffics in humor and satire.

2. I initially only read the first paragraph of the fake “excerpt,” which in isolation is not absolutely divorced from reality. There’s TV channels for dogs. Why couldn’t there be a channel which is gorilla-focused?

3. The excerpts from Wolff’s book had been flying around, many of the verifiable ones seemingly also hard to believe. Additionally, given Wolff’s reputation as a less than scrupulous fact checker of the story-too-good-to-check variety, I believed it possible he could’ve been passing off a single anecdote as “fact.”

4. I was aware of a confirmed story of Donald Trump commanding his son to fast forward Jean Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport to show only the fight scenes while travelling on his private plane.[1] It’s not a stretch to believe President Trump would be attracted to animal kingdom territorial combat.

Thankfully, as I let this “fact” bound around my brain for a minute, my skepticism (which should’ve been leading the process, not following it) kicked in, I went back, read the entire image from the Tweet and realized it was fake.

Still, it shook me. Here was a joke which some people believed far longer than me. What’s happening when the information isn’t so obviously satirical? How can we be armed to make sense of the fire hose of information?

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This incident happened simultaneously with me spending some time thinking about how the ways I’ve traditionally asked students in a first-year writing class to engage with information and argument have not kept up with the times.

For many years, one of my favorite class periods in first-year writing was when I’d introduce the students to the college’s library databases. I contrasted what they would find working with the library v. what they’d find on the internet. Finding reliable information on the internet could be a bit like the parable of the needle in the haystack. Good stuff was there, but you might have to wade through some crap to locate it.

The library databases, on the other hand, was like a pile of needles, with only the occasional bit of hay.

I was exaggerating and simplifying, but I was trying to direct students towards engaging with the kinds of writing and thinking which they could rely on when it came to making their own arguments. This was in the days before social media became quite as ubiquitous, before it was so clear that, in the words of Mike Caulfield of Washington State University in his book Web Literacy for Fact-Checkers, that the web “is both the largest propaganda machine ever created and the most amazing fact-checking tool ever invented.” 

Bringing students into the world of peer reviewed publications and academic research which has been thoughtfully composed and thoroughly vetted seemed like a gift and a responsibility.

But in a world where our time with students is limited, I think focusing on how to use “academic” research while writing scholarly texts in a single-semester first-year writing class may not be the best use of our time.

If writing is thinking – as I believe it to be – and if the purpose of first-year writing is to help students develop a writing practice that allows them to act as critical thinkers, capable of responding to arguments of others and creating arguments of their own in contexts with real purposes and genuine audiences, I believe it may be in our best interest to center first-year writing on teaching students “web literacy.”

As Caulfield argues in the introduction to his free, open-source, continually updating textbook, “the web is a unique terrain” and students (like just about all of us) spend the vast majority of their time trying to navigate this terrain.

The tools of source evaluation I’ve used, such as the CRAAP Test,[2] do not work in a world where sources of disinformation are designed to specifically defeat these tests.

A trend I’ve noticed in my students is not that they’ve become too trusting of whatever they see on the internet, so much as indifferent, sensing that anything could be true or untrue, and it doesn’t necessarily matter which is which. It’s all just “content.”

The information washes over and what sticks, sticks. My – very brief, I swear – failure to employ my usual skepticism reminded me of how overwhelming the web can be. Giving up on sorting it out is not entirely unreasonable, but is also not acceptable if we’re aiming to educate people.

And the truth is, for all of the effluent which courses through the web and our social media feeds, it is also a place where real and meaningful debates are happening.[3] As just one recent example, I’ve read numerous complex and nuanced responses to the controversy currently surrounding Aziz Ansari, each of which has caused me to think more deeply about the questions being raised by the public airing of these incidents.

A thoughtful and curious student could do worse than harvest some of these contrasting opinions and write a summary of those arguments while including a response of their own, a base unit of thinking necessary to academic discourse.

But to do that, they need much more practice navigating this space, a chance to practice the necessary skills and use the most powerful tools, while doing so in a culture which privileges truth finding.

I have a lot more thinking about how this would work, what would be lost and what would be gained. Valuing different things may result in different choices. Right now, though, the old ways feel not only insufficient, but increasingly irrelevant. 

 

 

[1] For the record, this is the best way to watch Bloodsport.

[2] In which you examine the source for its Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose.

[3] We’re on the web right now, and this is a fantastic piece of argument you’re experiencing.

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