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Fake news meets fact in an Oxford-style debate revival

From left to right: Prince Oguguo, Carol Margaret Bitner, Sharon Crost, Michelle Mielly and Gazi Islam at the Grenoble Ecole de Management’s “Oxford-style debate”, part of the school’s 10th geopolitics festival. Author provided

This article is the first in the five-part debate series, “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay”. It expounds on the rationale for debates in general and this series in particular.

Fake news is a global danger

Misinformation and its correlate, propaganda, have been used for centuries by the powerful to gain political or religious legitimacy, inspire wars, and motivate movements.

Exposing people to visual or narrative information on a given event not only influences their interpretation, but also their memory of the event. First coined the “misinformation effect” by psychologists Loftus, Miller, and Burns in 1978, it was shown that exposing eyewitnesses to information – whether true or false– can alter or influence their memories of an event. Along these lines, citizens have become increasingly aware of the problem of fake news and its dissemination across the political spectrum worldwide thanks to social media. But the capacity of fake news to enable the creation of false memories deserves more attention as psychologists help us understand thorny questions of truth and untruth.

Today, as online users consume more and more information, the media mix is changing and risks are growing. Intricate algorithms and artificial intelligence can diminish even the savviest thinker’s discernment and decision-making abilities. Way back in 2013, before Brexit, Russian social-media bots, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks Report noted that one of the most pressing dangers we faced was the “digital wildfire” spread of misinformation via social media. This danger is not subsiding, and in the five years following the report’s publication, the prevalence and impact of misinformation is thought to remain on the rise.

A 2017 WEF study reported that 64% of the respondents experienced a great deal of confusion about basic facts of current affairs due to fake news. Another recent story from the French context reveals that 80% of French schoolkids can’t tell a real news story from a fake one. Clearly, young people need additional guidance in developing discernment between the two. But the young are not alone in their inability to swiftly spot a fake. Can you?

Deception starts early

In the Western context, a child builds confidence over time in the view that Santa Claus (Father Christmas, Père Noël, Papa Noel, Viejo Pascuero…) will actually come down the chimney at the end of December each year with toys, and this is corroborated by his or her most trusted entourage as well as by information online.

Today, information from the Santa Claus Twitter handle, Santa’s Facebook account, or an online tracker following the voyage of Santa Claus and his reindeer around the world enable us to collectively participate in the phony legend. We all know the agony of the 8-year-old who figures out that the whole Santa Claus thing is a sham. And yet longstanding social norms ordain this deceptive storyline – in the end requiring blatantly lying to your children for a number of years – as expected practice.

All you need is phronesis: hope for the problem

One solution for snuffing out digital wildfires before they spread is by engaging in contexts where practical wisdom can be fostered. Aristotle promoted the idea of exercising one’s reason through practical means such as deliberation and debate, and his concept of practical wisdom or phronesis involved constantly weighing the relative value of arguments in the face of decisions and actions. Practical wisdom in this sense enables debate, or the activity of expressing both sides of a story, along with the corresponding ethical considerations.

This ancient Greek tradition was carried on in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Union debate society, founded in 1823 as a forum for structured discussion, debate, and the free exchange of ideas. The format has continued to be developed over time and involves an important set of rules for engagement. A modern version of the Oxford Union practice can be found with Intelligence Squared, founded in 2002 and spanning diverse geographies – Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Chile – to lead debates on a huge variety of topics around the globe.

As during the Antiquity, debate today can be transformational for young people, students, or citizens at large wishing to develop essential life skills – critical thinking, active listening, extemporaneous speaking and self-assurance. Debate can occupy a prominent place in modern education to counter the problems associated with fake news, especially because it requires face to face interaction as opposed to interfacing virtually from behind a solitary screen. Face-to-face debate offers the equivalent to what Tristan Harris calls replacing the “comment” button with a “let’s meet” button on social media.

From fake to fact: presenting the Oxford-style debate

We decided to test the value of phronesis for ourselves. In March 2018, as part of Grenoble Ecole de Management’s (GEM’s) Geopolitics Festival, we organised a competitive debate. The vast majority of the attendees were students in secondary and university studies, and most had never been exposed to the concept of the Oxford-style debate. We set up several objectives therefore going into this debate:

  • allow the audience to engage in a reasoned discussion on a given motion,

  • offer participants a combination of factual data, evidence-based knowledge, and opinion on a given topic to develop practical wisdom,

  • understand, identify, and accept the different beliefs of others,

  • offer an opportunity to develop a viewpoint and to and change sides after considering both sides of an argument.

This debate featured a tightly framed motion supported by one side and opposed by another. It was a discussion grounded in facts, and informed by reasoned analysis. The debaters, two teams of two, developed ideas, gathered data, defended their positions and argued their positions in a face-off with their opponents.

A pre-debate vote (vote 1) was taken to assess the percentage of the online vs. in-person viewers who were in support of the motion, against the motion or undecided. A post-debate vote was later taken (vote 2) to assess which team managed to sway more of the voters to its side of the debate.

A key challenge in developing this debate was to avoid a lopsided topic – one which would seem hugely popular on one side and unpopular for the other. The theme of the 2018 festival was “The 21st Century: An American Century?”, and we drilled down to focus on the impact over time reflected in the Trump phenomenon. We asked each other:

  • What is Trump reflecting?

  • What is the global impact of this for the 21st century?

  • What type of impacts will last, and what will not change?

The debaters were challenged with discussing the concept of impact (effect or influence), time (temporal considerations) and the concept of how politics reflects a given spirit in a given place and time. The official motion of the debate was finally selected– “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay”.

As with the festival itself, the debate was open to the local community, students and educators, but the actual attendees were surprisingly young – in the 18- to 23-year-old median range. Spoiler alert: the pre-debate vote showed that 30% of the attendees were for the motion, 30% were against and 40% were undecided. Fair and square!

Prince Oguguo, a researcher at GEM, was the first debater arguing for the motion. He teamed up with Carol-Margaret Bitner, head of local American School of Grenoble. The opposing team arguing against the motion was composed of Michelle Mielly and her debate partner Gazi Islam, both professors at GEM. The debaters were neither political scientists nor specialists in debate. They were simply researchers, educators and professors committed to facts and to the idea of combating fake news.

Here’s your opportunity: vote, listen and decide

The next four articles in this series will feature the arguments that each of the debaters presented at the event. But wait – there’s a catch! Before you read these articles, you have to vote! Remember, the motion we presented was, “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay”. Are you for the motion, against the motion or undecided? Note your response. Taking this 10-second poll allows us measure the impact of the debate arguments you will read in the following articles, and fulfils a crucial part of the debate process by letting you make your voice heard.

   Please vote by clicking here.

Now that you have completed the pre-debate vote, you are invited to proceed to carefully considering the four arguments proposed by our debaters. The arguments are steeped in research, facts and rational ideas. Once you have considered these arguments, you are invited to vote again – for, against or undecided. Will your commitment to considering both sides of the argument be an antidote to combatting the risk of fake news? Good luck!

The next article in this series “Trumping the old order: Trump, and triumphing in ‘new-wage’ America” will argue for the motion: “The impact reflected by Trump is here to stay”. Click here to watch a video of the original debate.

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