The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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Critical Ignoring and Fact-Checking

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 26 October 2023, 13:24 Last update: about 9 months ago

It is not the first time that we have been warned about the perils of 'post-truth' situations, where fake news is propagated, at times making it very difficult to verify the accuracy of content. The interpretation and reporting of tragic events around the world, from pandemics to wars, is often filled with such instances.  

Similarly, we frequently encounter self-appointed experts, with little or no credentials in the fields they are talking about, such as healthcare, traffic, or geo-politics, to name but a few.  

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Which takes me to a very useful article I read earlier this year in The Conversation - a collaboration between academics and journalists that produces research-based news and analysis. The article, authored by Ralph Hertwig, Anastasia Kozyreva, Sam Wineburg, and Stephan Lewandowsky, is entitled "When critical thinking isn't enough: to beat information overload, we need to learn 'critical ignoring'". It was published last February and can be found online.

Here, the four academics highlight how the digital world is full of information, much of which is unvetted, and how this can be  propagated across the social media, advertisements, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, often resulting in overwhelming situations and information overabundance, for example when trying to decipher facts on delicate, contentious, or controversial issues. According to the four authors, critical thinking, important as it is, may not be enough to tackle such situations: we need cognitive strategies to regain control.

Consequently, they propose 'critical ignoring' to disempower the 'attention merchants' who are trying to sell us their narratives. This involves "the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one's limited attention capabilities".

Thus, critical ignoring involves mindful habits and tools, including 'self nudging', where we can choose what to follow, for example by removing useless notifications on our phones; and 'lateral reading' where, like fact-checkers, we try to verify the credibility of information, for example by checking on the organisation or news portal in question. Another very important habit they propose, is not to feed the 'trolls'. When one debates or shares stuff which is lacking in credibility, and which often, but not always, is in the form of sensationalist clickbait, one helps empower the producer of such information. 

Which takes me to another recommendable article in 'The Conversation', entitled 'Israel-Gaza conflict: when social media fakes are rampant, news verification is vital',  authored by Mitali Mukherjee. Here it is recommended to consult professional fact-checkers such as those provided by the BBC, the Associated Press and Reuters when it comes to verifying the accuracy of news.

At a policy-level, and looking at the Maltese context, I believe that we can also invest in such strategies, for example through the teaching and learning of reflexive and critical digital competencies, at all levels of education. In this regard, we are also still trying to understand the impact of Artificial Intelligence. Let us ride its tremendous wave like skilled surfers, rather than crash into it and drown.

Prof Michael Briguglio is a Sociologist and Associate Professor at the University of Malta

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