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Fake News Ain’t New to “Us”: Professor Dwight Watkins speaks at Engaging the Humanities Guest Lecture

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By Alex Challies 


Acclaimed journalist and The New York Times’ best selling author Dwight Watkins delivered an intriguing and enlightening lecture this week on the impact of fake news within American society.

Hosted in the Manchester School of Art Benzie building, the two hour lecture offered Engaging the Humanities students the chance to hear a unique insight into the immediate issues surrounding fake news.

Professor Watkins has spent the past three years touring and discussing his experience with fake news. He identifies that fake news is nothing new, and highlights methods he believes effective to combat the spread of misinformation. He is a strong advocate for teaching critical thinking skills; a revelation that was met with enthusiasm from the audience during his talk.

A key factor which allows the ‘effective’ exchange of fake news is a cultural divide. When someone doesn’t encounter a particular demographic of person in their daily life, they are left potentially vulnerable to an inaccurate representation from the media. Combined with a lack of critical thinking ability, this is the fuel on which fake news can burn.

“Not just the people not doing their job as journalists, but those who are so quick to receive the information,” Professor Watkins said.

Watkins illustrated the racial divide in America with an anecdote from one of his book signings. A woman waited until the end to speak with him, excitedly stating how similar they both were. Sidestepping the strange comment, Watkins thanked her for coming and left. By chance, the same woman was passing the bookshop as Watkins returned the next day, but she crossed the road quickly upon seeing him. It wasn’t until she recognised Watkins that she suddenly ran over to him in joy.

“Regular black person, not so good. A famous black person, best thing in the world. That’s fake news,” he said.

Her initial response was fear, possibly brought about by the mainstream media’s misrepresentation of black people in America as dangerous. Yet it only seems to be poor black people which the police are shown to target in the media. Watkins said, “A lot of these people they subscribe to racist ideas but, they might have black friends, but they use language like ‘all black people are this’.”

One 19-year-old student commented: “It’s hard because it’s really different in the UK but it’s kind of the same.”

The social divide in America is further exacerbated by the modern method of policing. Nowadays it’s police cruisers and impersonal calls to which the police respond. In comparison “beat cops” used to walk the streets and would get to know locals in an area. Watkins explained, “You can’t protect a community you’re not a part of.”

Though Watkins insisted that policing isn’t as relevant to a racial divide as it is an economic one. A mentality is formed where the police must look out for their own above all else. He said, “When people become police officers, it’s not about white or black, it’s about blue. In a rich neighbourhood they protect and serve, in a poor neighbourhood they enforce.”

Money runs the world. An example from Watkins’s own life is his upcoming TV show, ‘The B-Side’. A single camera comedy about working as an artist. This wasn’t his first choice of content to create, his original pitch was a show on how systemic racism affects everyday people. No one would touch it simply because it wouldn’t generate much revenue.

“The advertisers control the content,” he said. It doesn’t look like the state of affairs is likely to change in the foreseeable future, America relies far too heavily on an imbalanced Capitalist model. He added: “An established culture that exists and is lucrative.”

With the socially, racially and economically divisive state of affairs in America, fake news takes the appearance of an illusive juggernaut. But not something invincible, Watkins believes that the general public must arm themselves with the ability to identify fake news.

Watkins said, “How I fight the current power structure, I try to make it more inclusive. A smaller part of this is the critical thinking.”

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