With concerns mounting about the threat of fake news (disinformation) on public life in Singapore, the National University of Singapore (NUS) recently launched a new course that provides students with the knowledge and critical thinking skills to assess information they come across on the internet.
Offered as a credit-bearing undergraduate elective since 2018, ALS1020 – Learning to Choose Better (LTCB) examines common cognitive biases, such as hindsight bias and the Forer effect, and applies them to case studies related to fake news incidents in both current and historical contexts. It demonstrates why so many of us—from undergraduate students to high-ranking professionals with advanced degrees—are vulnerable to disinformation, even when we think we’re not.
“The rise of fake news was a major inspiration for creating a course that helps students to evaluate information they encounter in the media,” says Professor Robert Kamei, Associate Provost (Education) at NUS. “This is particularly urgent as recent advances, such as ‘deep fake’ technologies that use artificial intelligence to create video content that is virtually indistinguishable from reality, will make the next generation of fake news even more compelling and dangerous.”
The course shows that fake news has been around for a long time—one of the case studies looks at the story of the Cottingley Fairies, an incident from the early 20th century in which a pair of young girls doctored a series of photographs to include images of fairies. The photos were published widely and sparked fierce debate, with some believing them to be fake and others (including the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) taking them at face value.
The course also looks at the types of fake news that flourish on the internet today. This includes relatively pedestrian examples like horoscopes and fortune telling, which are still widely followed in Singapore. It also includes more insidious examples like the belief that vaccines cause autism, which persists despite presenting mortal danger for the health and safety of children everywhere.
LTCB equips students with specific strategies to avoid falling prey to fake news. In one assignment, for example, students are tasked to review two different websites and evaluate their credibility by looking for signs of bias. Assignments like this promote active engagement with the course material, which hones critical thinking skills.
“The inadequate ability to filter disinformation arises from innate cognitive biases that have undermined human decision making for millennia,” says Fun Man Fung, a Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at NUS who teaches the course alongside Prof Kamei. “This is why it’s so important that we work with students to systematically understand and dismantle these biases before it’s too late.”
“Too often we are overly confident about decisions that we made just because we thought them through carefully,” adds Fung. “We should show more humility when we think we made ‘better’ choices than others.”
The new course dovetails with broader desire of the NUS administration to promote a scientific mindset among its students. “The scientific approach of collecting data from multiple sources, verifying the information and drawing evidence-based conclusions will help us to make decisions wisely,” said Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost at NUS, in a recent article for the Straits Times. “Having an open, scientific mind is essential to living in a digital world.”