CHICAGO – In a recent discussion about policing fake news, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg alarmingly remarked that he doesn’t block Holocaust deniers on his social-media platform because they aren’t “intentionally getting it wrong.”
The sad truth is that Zuckerberg is right: People aren’t great at understanding history or current events, and many of them have trouble sorting facts from opinion.
On the topic of the Holocaust, for instance, the statistics are startling.
Eleven percent of all Americans and 22 percent of millennials hadn’t heard of the Holocaust or weren’t sure what it was, according to a study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a New York-based advocacy organization pursuing restitution for victims and heirs of Nazi persecution.
The study also found that 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust – that number is actually around 6 million.
Forty-one percent of all Americans and 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was – it was a concentration camp in Poland – and 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
You could blame poor schooling, political partisanship, lack of interest in history and current events, or even too much time spent on social media. But our country’s current fake-news dilemma rests on a potent combination of “all of the above” plus media illiteracy.
The Pew Research Center recently published a quiz that anyone can take to see if they are capable of discerning factual statements from opinions, regardless of whether the person agrees with the statement or thinks it’s accurate.
The quiz includes 10 items, such as: “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have some rights under the Constitution”; and “Abortion should be legal in most cases.”
The nuances involved in evaluating these two statements may be complex for people who are not journalists or otherwise trained to spot fact versus opinion.
The first statement about immigrant rights, regardless of whether it is correct – and it is, unlawfully present immigrants have multiple rights under the Constitution, including the right to due process – is about a fact, which can be proven either true or false.
Based on Pew’s survey, only 43 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats correctly answered that the immigration prompt was a factual statement, meaning that many incorrectly identified it as mere opinion.
“Abortion should be legal in most cases” is seemingly much more straightforward. The word “should” is the warning bell that indicates it is an expression of opinion and not of fact.
However, while 87 percent of Republicans correctly identified this statement as an opinion, only 74 percent of Democrats did, leaving a quarter who believed it was a fact.
Pew concluded that Republicans and Democrats are more likely to classify a news statement as factual if it favors their side – whether it is factual or opinion.
For example, the statement “Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country today” is plainly an opinion statement, because it does not define “very big” and therefore leaves the nature of the “problem” wide open to interpretation.
However, only 49 percent of Republicans correctly identified this sentiment as an opinion – the majority saw it as a factual statement. But 81 percent of Democrats, who are likelier to disagree with the statement, correctly identified it as opinion.
“One especially salient finding is that the basic task of differentiating between factual and opinion news statements presents somewhat of a challenge to Americans,” said Amy Mitchell, the director of journalism research at Pew.
“People with high political awareness and those who are very digitally savvy or place high levels of trust in the news media were better able than others to accurately classify the statements,” Mitchell added. “Overall, Americans have some ability to separate what is factual from what is opinion, but the gaps across population groups raise caution.”
It’s pretty clear that Facebook isn’t as key to mitigating disinformation as we’d like.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no simple answer for ameliorating the skewed perceptions of a populace that doesn’t know its history, has strong partisan affiliations and has little confidence in the media’s trustworthiness.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @estherjcepeda. (c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group.