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When ‘fake news’ becomes real: the dangers online

31st July 2017

Anne Collier is founder and executive director of The Net Safety Collaborative, the U.S. nonprofit organisation that runs iCanHelpline.org, the country’s new social media helpline for schools. A youth advocate with more than 20 years’ experience researching, writing and speaking about young digital media users, Anne has served on three national task forces on internet safety. She has contributed to a number of books and other publications, most recently Bullying: Perspectives, Practice and Insights (Council of Europe, 2017). In 2016, she presented a TEDx talk on “The Heart of Digital Citizenship” at the ITU’s World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva. Based with her family in the Seattle area, she blogs at NetFamilyNews.org.  You can visit her website here. In this guest blog, which can also be found at Net Family News, Anne talks about the dangers of when ‘fake news’ becomes real.

fake news

The term “fake news” has largely (and rightfully) been discredited because, at best, it’s simplistic and, at worst, used to dismiss or discredit legitimate news providers. But there is such a thing as real fake news: misinformation and disinformation that goes viral in this digital age and then leads to real tragedy.

the Blue Whale story

So the “Blue Whale” story is no longer about “fake news.” To Dan Reidenberg, managing director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), it’s about what we do as a society next – what we do about what may’ve been fake news that started in another part of the world but now has become real. Because two suicides in the U.S. have – as NJ1015.com in New Jersey has responsibly reported – “suspected links” to “Blue Whale.”

‘no need to panic’

Importantly, Newsweek and CNN both quote Dr. Reidenberg, a suicide prevention adviser to Facebook, as saying, “There is no need to panic, because this is not yet a crisis, rather a caution to alert people in advance.” He rang me with the question no one has the answer to yet: how we get out in front of internationally viral stories that are so cynically dark and focused on youth, that they spread fear among adults and curiosity and/or rebellion among youth, particularly vulnerable youth. How can we grow understanding among adults that keeps them – from the news media to police to educators to parents – from contributing to what Dan and other suicide prevention experts call “the copycat effect,” or suicide contagion. That’s the real danger of this originally fake news. As Newsweek’s Max Kutner put it in a video about a “cluster” of youth suicides in Colorado Springs, “perhaps the most troubling risk factor … is other suicides, and young people have been found to be more susceptible to contagion in suicide than other demographics.”

This is a painful but essential social media-informed and fueled social experiment. We don’t know the result yet, but I completely agree with Dr. Reidenberg that we greatly need to get out in front of it. What the result will be is going to take a collection of expertise: suicide prevention, journalists, media literacy experts, educators, parents and especially youth. We must not leave out youth survivor experience, voice and leadership.

media literacy + social literacy = safety

Together we need to get out in front of the viral effect of clickbait and the supporting roles of financial and social capital. Both media literacy and social literacy have key roles in this social experiment. These literacies need to catch up, because fact-checking and bystanders have life-saving powers now. Please consider how important it has become not to believe the worst about kids’ online experiences. Working with them to help each other, seek the facts and debunk false reporting is effective education in this news cycle and for their lives ahead. It both protects them and equips them to protect vulnerable peers – in the face of fake news, actual news, live-streamed events, etc. – because they’re often the first to know when peers are especially vulnerable.

questions to ask

If you, your kids or students read coverage of a suicide, together look at ReportingonSuicide.org, the protective guidelines that suicide prevention experts created for the news media and see if the reporter honored them. As for “Blue Whale,” look for any mention of police verification of what the reporter says or what their sources say about the role of the “game” (which it’s not) – usually the coverage of a tragic event like this comes well before an investigation is complete. And if a police department near you releases a warning to parents, ask the department if it’s based on actual investigative work or on news reports and the good intention of preventing any possible harm. If the latter, work with your kids or students to get to the facts.

Other questions to ask when reading news reports: Was there any evidence, in the device the child used, of communication with a “game” curator, facilitator or other manipulator – not just references to Blue Whale in search history (finding related sites in search history indicates curiosity more than actual participation)? Was there any evidence of the other kinds of self-harm reportedly promoted in the “50-day challenge”? And why would a mentally healthy young person get involved in a “game” that’s about self-harm? – a very good question to ask young people. All excellent questions, offered with thanks to media critic David Stein in the Czech Republic.

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