When a friend and I first read about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel releasing a stream of expletives and walking off of Sean Hannity’s Fox News program in November 2012, we immediately began an online search to locate a video of that explosive moment. I’m admitting up front that our search wasn’t driven by skepticism; we simply wanted to see the altercation with our own eyes. And within a couple of minutes, we not only had determined that there was no footage to be viewed, but that the original source—The Daily Currant—clearly identifies itself, on its “About” page, as “an English language online satirical newspaper that covers global politics, business, technology, entertainment, science, health and media.” The site also informs readers that the stories “are purely fictional. However, they are meant to address real-world issues through satire and often refer and link to real events happening in the world.” But we had to take the extra step of looking at the “About” page, because nothing on the page containing the original story hinted at anything other than a news report posted by on online publication.
Think of The Daily Currant as an online version of The Daily Show on Comedy Central or a subtle version of The Onion. And also think of it as a reminder of the need for finely-honed crap detection skills—one piece of the overall skill set seems to be an integral part of any definition we can create for our constantly evolving sense of what “digital literacy” means in its broadest as well as its most specific sense.
Digital literacy is a theme many of us began exploring a few weeks ago within the context of a wonderful massive open online course (MOOC), #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media MOOC that Alec Couros and others are currently offering through March 2013. For a couple of weeks and with the guidance of some wonderful learning facilitators, we struggled with the wicked problem of trying to create a workable definition for digital literacy—a term that appeared straightforward at a glance but that proved to be incredibly nuanced, subjective, and complex as we gave it increased attention.
But there’s nothing nuanced or complex about the obvious need for highly-developed crap detection skills in our onsite-online world—a theme brought into full focus for us through Howard Rheingold’s #etmooc digital literacy presentation on “Literacies of Attention, Crap Detection, Collaboration, and Network Know-How” last month. Picking up on themes he has obviously covered elsewhere, he talked about walking his daughter through the process of exploring a website that initially appeared to be an official site about a well-known historic figure, but eventually turned out to be a far-from-objective source of information. He also recalled taking an online pregnancy test that confirmed he was going to give birth to a baby girl and that the father of his child was Fabio Lanzoni.
We don’t need the extreme example of the online test that confirmed Rheingold’s pregnancy to see how alert we and those we help in our roles as trainer-teacher-learners need to be. When we find ourselves or our media learners taken in by something along the lines of that Daily Currant story about Rahm Emanuel, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves as well as at the story; remember that what seems improbable to some appears to be completely credible to others; and do a little follow-up in sifting through the deluge of information—and perhaps, along the ways, honing what a colleague referred to as “deluge literacy.” We can, for example, see right through stories about how Pope Benedict XVI actually resigned because he is gay, how Sarah Palin announced her intention to run for president of the United States in 2014, how New York Times columnist and award-winning economist Paul Krugman has filed for bankruptcy, and how Facebook is going to begin charging us if we want to remove our photos from its site—once we know that we’re viewing a satirical website. But those who don’t have the digital literacy skills to make that determination are not only going to believe what seems credible to them, they’re going to forward that misinformation on to others via Twitter and other social media platforms and react through postings on the Daily Currant site itself. (If your crap detectors are going off and you’re wondering whether people actually do post comments indicating they believed the stories, skim some of the comments. A running joke among regular readers of the fake news within The Daily Currant is the fake dilemma of whether to point out the “About” page to those who believe they’re reading real news reports—or whether to egg them on by responding with comments including “Quick, go make a chain status! Everyone must know about this!”.)
When our crap detectors let us down and we fall prey to something displaying truthiness rather than truth, we can at least take solace that we’re not alone—as we recently saw when a Washington Post blogger fell into the trap of believing a Daily Currant story reporting that Sarah Palin was going to begin working for Al Jazeera after leaving Fox News. Adding insult to injury, the Currant writers ran a follow-up story reporting that Palin had accepted a position as a visiting scholar at Harvard, a situation that “will finally put to rest the rumors, first reported in the Washington Post, that she would be joining Al-Jazeera as an on-air commentator.”
I suppose, given all these twists and turns, that we should be grateful some of our best online pranksters are transparent about the reliability of what they are disseminating. One of my favorites, for example, is the Fake Library Stats (@FakeLibStats) Twitter account, where we have, within the past 24 hours, fake-learned that “35% of librarians send overdue notices to their friends & family to whom they’ve loaned a book,” “97% of librarians have alphabetized their friends’ spice racks,” and “98% of all librarians secretly want to weed and then rearrange their friends’ book collections.”
If laughter helps us learn, then we should acknowledge and thank The Daily Currant, The Daily Show, The Onion, @FakeLibStats, and many others for helping us hone that part of our digital literacy skill set covered by the concept of crap detection. And, in the meantime, let’s see if we can track down confirmation that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is demanding that Donald Trump produce a copy of his birth certificate so he can be assured that he won’t be disqualified, as a non-citizen, from running for president if he ever again considers pursuing that path.