NextTerm Class Develops Tool for Identifying Fake News
A recent study in the journal Science found that false news spreads about six times faster than true news on social media, a fact that isn’t all that surprising to the students in the NextTerm course Lizard People Run the Country: Debunking Conspiracy Theories.
Take Alexander Alvarado ’20, for instance, who watched a YouTube video about the U.S. Government’s purported role in the terror attacks on 9/11. He had already heard his family members discuss a possible connection, and the “facts” from the video cemented his belief that the buildings collapsed because the government used controlled demolitions, and not because terrorists flew airplanes into them.
It wasn’t until Alexander completed his NextTerm experience that he began to see that the theory lacked credibility and couldn’t be proven. “My belief in this theory changed as I learned more throughout the time in this class because I learned about the underlying biases people can have that influence their perspective of things in the world,” he said. “It was a shocking and brain-shattering moment for me because this is something I fully believed in my whole life.”
To stop the spread of conspiracy theories like the one Alexander believed in, the students in the class developed a barometer of fake news, called “The Truth Detector,” a quick test that can help people determine how likely it is that a given theory could be true. The Truth Detector works because it shifts the burden of proof to the conspiracy theorist, instead of forcing other people to prove the theory is untrue, a much harder task. The students hope that if more people use The Truth Detector, false information won’t spread as quickly. (The test doesn’t prove or disprove a theory, but informs people of the likelihood that it could possibly be true.)
The Truth Detector
Step 1: Occam’s Razor. This principle states that the simplest explanation is usually the truth. If there are two theories about a subject, the one that requires the least amount of speculation is usually correct.
Step 2: Cui Bono. Who benefits from a particular theory?
Step 3: Falsifiability. Can the theory be contradicted by a basic, true statement?
Step 4: Impartial Spectator Test. Are there any unbiased observers (think: scientists) who have made observations related to the theory?
In their presentation to the Hun community at NeXpo, the group tested the 9/11 conspiracy theory that Alexander believed using The Truth Detector, and this is what they found:
Conspiracy theory: The U.S. government was responsible for the collapse of the Twin Towers (and 7 World Trade Center) on Sept. 11, 2001. The buildings fell because of a controlled demolition, and not because of a structural failure due to the impact of the airplanes.
Occam’s Razor: Because we know that the planes that flew into the World Trade Center were hijacked, and because Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, the simplest explanation is that the U.S. government was not the entity responsible for the attack and resulting building collapse.
Cui Bono: It wouldn’t benefit the government to keep this kind of secret from the public, because there would be fear of information leaking out. There is also an enormous cost involved, including the cost of human life and the expenses involved with orchestrating an attack of that magnitude.
Falsifiability: To believe this particular conspiracy theory would mean dismissing the thousands of eyewitness accounts (and photos and videos) from people who saw the airplanes fly into the sides of the building, and then watched them crumble.
Impartial Spectator Test: Engineers have publicly stated that it is possible for the buildings to have collapsed because of the impact of the airplanes combined with the damage from the resulting fires.
Result: It is very unlikely that the U.S. government collapsed the World Trade Center buildings using controlled demolition.
The Hun School of Princeton is an independent, coeducational, private day and boarding college preparatory school. Student-centered, hands-on learning prepares students for the global community in which they will live and work.