It sounds like a fake news story: Two professors plan a free online course on how to write fake news.
But this course is real—as well as an act of satire. It’s called “How to Write and Read Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Trump,” and it’s being offered as a kind of performance art to draw attention to the problem of the influential falsehoods that are spreading online. The course is the latest offering from a long-running satirical project called UnderAcademy College, whose previous courses included “Grammar Porn” and “Underwater Procrastination and Advanced Desublimation Techniques.”
One of the new course’s professors is Mark Marino, an associate professor in the writing program at University of Southern California—though he’s doing it as a side project and the effort has no connection to USC. (His co-teacher, or co-digressor as they call it, is Talan Memmott, a visiting professor of mass communication and transmedia at Winona State University.)
Satire, Marino argues, may be the most effective tool at what he called a time of trial for the truth. We caught up with him last week to find out more about the project—and how teachers can best respond to the rise of fake news. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: Could you give us a quick sense of what you’re up to with teaching a course on how to write fake news?
Marino: We feel like we’ve entered yet another period in the communication realm of the United States, especially politically speaking. It’s kind of a truth-optional moment, where as we frame it, the fourth estate of journalism has been usurped by a fifth estate of jour-null-ism, where facts have been replaced with a sense of willing suspension of disbelief for the promotion of stories that people wish were true and are happy to pass off as true and are happy to believe as true with very little backing. And so it seemed crucial that an institution like the UnderAcademy College would fulfill its role in the universe and in academia by preparing 21st century jour-null-ists for the activity of producing this kind of fake news in as professional a way as possible, and then of course helping them to know how to read it properly as well.
Is there an art to making fake news? Your course description describes what you call the five W’s.
Right. They are Who, What, Where, Why and WTF. The key to fake news is, on the surface of it, in the headline, it should be as audacious as possible.
Truth be darned?
Right. Again, it's walking hand in hand with traditional clickbait, and then when you get into the meat of the article is that, again, going back to our good friend Stephen Colbert, it’s got to have just enough truthiness for people to be both delighted and have their opinions reinforced. But it can’t raise too many red flags in their critical thinking that might cause them to doubt what it is that’s being circulated.
We’re saying: Let’s take it on its face as being a form of writing that seems to be popular right now and then let’s figure what its rules are. Let’s figure out how it operates and then try to get students to enter that world.
So how does this UnderAcademy College work?
It’s good to think of the UnderAcademy College more in the tradition of a Black Mountain College than perhaps pure satire. It’s an artistic adventure where the students are just as much creating the educational experience, and where the educational framework is a space for art making and critical thinking. Everything from the course descriptions to the assignments and on out.
So this is a three-week course that will actually happen—it’s not just a joke?
It’ll actually happen. We have more than 100 people signed up so far. It’s a free course. We’re still accepting people if people would like to join, and we’re launching on January 20th, the day of the inauguration. We’ll have an activity that first day. Since our president-elect’s favorite medium seems to be Twitter, we will have our jour-null-ists go out and try to cover the inauguration with as much veracity as seems to be warranted by this particular presidency.
Aren’t there ethical concerns if you’re having students write fake news? Isn't it possible that you could be adding to the problem of falsehoods that people take as true?
On the one hand, it’s drops of water into the ocean at this point. On the other hand, that’s a risk that someone takes whenever they enter a space satirically and critically. The Onion itself for example has misled people in the past and again. It’s part of the price of engaging in a satirical activity. Again, our idea is of course just to shine the brightest light we possibly can on this realm, with the idea that the more critical and creative thought that goes into this topic, the more we can take away some of its power, if that makes sense.
I find myself feeling almost nervous for your project, though. It does seem like something could go wrong, so to speak. It just seems like there’s such a new era of heightened difficulty in communicating.
Let me give you some of our assignments as a way of further characterizing this course. We’re going to have people live mis-tweeting the inaugural address. We’ll have some lessons in “photoshlopping,” or creating fake digital images. We will have an assignment called “Mis-statements of the Union” where we’re going to hold a mock State of the Union address and our jour-null-ism-students-in-training will be covering that, asking questions that we will try to mis-direct and mis-answer, and then, of course, they’ll have to report those incorrectly.
We’re going to teach them how to do post-fact checking where they take a fake news story and try to find at least one online source that confirms the points in it. Also some fake interviews as well.
Independently verifying lies?
Right, exactly. It’s not just an echo-sphere anymore. It is a self-sustaining world of falsehoods.
Will you try to have your students submit these fake articles to real publications or put them into Buzzfeed’s community site—and actually try to spread them?
We haven’t chosen our platisher just yet but certainly we will have the students put them into the self-publishing journalism eco-sphere with all the rest of the things that are out there.
You also teach students in USC’s writing program to do more truth-based work. What challenges do you see presented by this environment, where non-truthful writings on the internet seem to be shaping real opinions and possibly even elections?
To some extent the landscape is very similar to what it’s always been for someone who’s teaching writing and critical reasoning. All of us have had assignments for ages that involve evaluating the sources that you receive news from, and deciding their relative weight and merits and looking at the editorial process involved in the production of that news, and fact checking and things like that. What’s changed is that the democratic spirit that seemed to come about at around the turn of the millennium around platforms where people could blog and post, and of course, that has now evolved into the platisher model of places like Medium and Buzzfeed Community.
What did you call that model?
Platishers. That’s a portmento of publishers and platforms. That whatever zeal was behind the democratic opportunity of opinion publication in the blogosphere has to some extent been upstaged by a realm where people can publish something that passes with the appearance of the news itself and get it circulated beyond the circulation of many news outlets.
If you look at some of the studies of articles that have been passed around on Facebook during the past election, articles that have been proven to be completely false, such as those about the Pope’s endorsement of Trump (which never happened), those stories out-circulated most of the stories that came out of very reputable news outlets online. Again, part of this is algorithmic, too, because Facebook tracks the articles that are getting the most traffic and posts them on the side of the feed. You could also call it a snowball effect where the articles that have been trending continue to trend, and again, and it’s no surprise that some of the most salacious articles do the best.