EDITORIAL: Media literacy and its importance for a functioning democracy
From sensationalism to bias to completely misinformation, there are many ways the consumer can be misled in the age of online and television media. We are constantly bombarded with information from all sides, be it via television, radio, newspaper or social media. At Daily Wildcat, we believe that education and understanding of media literacy are as important to a functioning democracy as information itself.
While reading a journalistic article should be a straightforward process that gives the reader clear facts and information about events, people, subjects, etc., we do not live in a perfect world. It is up to the individual consumer to have tools to filter truth and falsehood in any medium viewed from any platform, be it newspapers and evening news or social media and the internet.
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Media literacy is the collection of skills associated with critical consumption of news and media by determining where media is coming from and what to do. Media literacy enables citizens of democracies to consume information from news outlets and understand what is going on in the world around them.
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In order to transform media literacy from a buzzword into a real concept, it is important to understand the contexts in which you see media, where the media come from and what message the information conveyed in a media source.
Democracy depends on its citizens and their media literacy skills. In other words, a democracy can only survive if its citizens filter out false information. In society people act on the basis of information, and the most basic duty of living in a democracy – to vote – is useless without factual information.
Spreading false information can also cause real physical harm. Misinformation about racial groups and religions can cause hate crimes, according to the United Nations. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, this risk became apparent as anti-Asian hate crime occurred due to incorrect information being disseminated on the internet. Words can be revised, but actions cannot, especially those fueled by hatred and malice that can produce false information.
Many cases of disinformation spreading social media only became relevant this year. One example is the conspiracy theory that the online furniture store Wayfair was selling very expensive furniture tagged with missing children’s names as part of an elaborate child sex trafficking program, which was not true. Unfortunately, despite absolutely no evidence for this claim, you can see the spread and find the claims of this conspiracy on Twitter with a simple search.
This conspiracy theory is a small part of the growing terrorist group QAnon, which emerged as an umbrella term for fringe conspiracies from the website 4chan. The basic consensus of QAnon believers is that leading U.S. Democrats and celebrities are part of a child sex trafficking, pedophile, and Satan worship ring – including President-elect Joe Biden and his associates, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, and religious leaders like Pope Francis – during the Outgoing President Donald Trump is the chosen one to rid the country of these people through “The Storm”.
According to The New York Times, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube played an essential role in spreading the online conspiracy. Violence and threats have been linked to the conspiracy, leading the current FBI director to classify the group as a domestic terrorist organization. Trump did nothing but encourage the group by stating that they are “people who love our country” and refused to condemn them when asked directly.
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Trump has also done more than facilitate and encourage a domestic terror group. By November 16, he tweeted more than 300 false claims about the results of the presidential election, with more being reported every day. Twitter marked this deluge of disinformation as “controversial” but left the tweets visible. Not only does this allow the spread of disinformation that destroys the credibility of the safest election in US history, it also enables its supporters to actively deny reality, reject the election result, and incite violence against electoral staff.
Since Trump’s defeat, QAnon has been reported to have “gone dark” with no new posts from “Q” along with a mixture of denial and loss-making among supporters. This does not mean that QAnon is no longer a domestic terror group, it just means that their largest enabler platform has become much more restricted, which will not end the beliefs or acts of violence of the groups.
QAnon and its massive following is just one example of how misinformation can infect a population by feeding people fear and lies in order to gain ground in popular media. The acts of violence encouraged by QAnon leaders and Trump pose a real threat to the functioning of our free elections in the United States
As mentioned earlier, this spiral of false information is largely made possible by the failure of filtering on social media platforms. A March 2019 report showed that 49% of adults in the United States unknowingly shared false information through social media.
The Daily Wildcat firmly believes in the importance of media literacy as the media have an increasing influence on the shaping of our culture and our beliefs and thus also our public policy. Fake news – including fake photos, online conspiracies, and deep fakes – continue to infect our democracy with disinformation that drastically affects the outcome of politics, elections, and the life of every person under US jurisdiction
If media literacy continues to be neglected, misinformation threatens not only marginalized citizens and their opponents, but can also undermine the idea of a free press, which is essential for a functioning democracy. The need for media literacy cannot be ignored. A radical change needs to be made in educating children about the media they consume and building adult trust in trusted news organizations. This training needs to evolve with technology and media platforms.
Journalists work for the public. The public must carefully choose where their information comes from while trusting journalists who work tirelessly to provide them with information that they can use in voting for the future.
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