Media literacy is the new alphabet: why everyone needs to know how to read the news
Disinformation circulating on social media today can mean the difference between illness and health.
To the untrained eye, a video by Stella Immanuel, an American doctor, appears completely legitimate. Immanuel, who wears her white coat and stands outside the US Supreme Court building, says she knows how to prevent further deaths from COVID-19. With a number of other people in white lab coats behind her, she assures that the virus has a cure: hydroxychloroquine.
The claim quickly spread on social platforms and received millions of views after it was shared by Donald Trump and one of his sons. Both Facebook and Twitter quickly removed the video for violating their misinformation guidelines, and the Centers for Disease Control debunked the doctor’s claims. But for millions the damage had already been done – the seeds for misinformation were sown.
Media literacy, or lack thereof, to be precise, could prove to be one of the greatest threats posed by social media. As viral claims attempt to downplay the severity of the virus and unsubstantiated theories about possible cures, the threat extends beyond practice and extends to society as a whole.
Facebook and other social media platforms have increased their disinformation policies in response to the pandemic and the 2020 US presidential election. Twitter has implemented a label under tweets presenting controversial election claims that warns viewers of this. They have also started completely removing some tweets with incorrect information like they did for the Immanuel video. Facebook has also started labeling posts as misleading or inaccurate, although the implementation has generated mixed reactions.
From the point of view of the World Health Organization, the problem of this “infodemia” is obvious; the solution, however, remains questionable. While the steps taken by Twitter and Facebook are a good place to start, more needs to be done to help people struggling to navigate the modern media landscape. I believe media literacy courses should be mandatory for all high school level Canadians in order to reduce the spread of misinformation and improve social media as a messaging platform.
According to a study by Ryerson University, 94 percent of online Canadians use social media. More than half of these users said they had encountered some form of misinformation. A study by McGill University found that the more a user relies on social media for news related to the pandemic, the more likely they are to defy public health guidelines. The reverse is equally true: the more a person relies on traditional news media for pandemic information, the more likely they are to follow guidelines. A similar study by Carleton University found that nearly half of Canadians surveyed believe at least one conspiracy theory about the coronavirus, with more than 25 percent believing the virus was developed as a weapon in China.
There are media science courses that deal with the influences advertising, propaganda and even cinema can have on consumers. But in the digital ecosystem we are in right now, it’s important to understand why misinformation exists on social media and who benefits from it. However, students are never taught how to use these platforms properly.
In April, the Canadian government invested $ 3 million to fight virus-related misinformation. The money will be split between several programs with the aim of “helping Canadians become more resilient and think critically”. It was not until the end of October that the federal government started a program in cooperation with MediaSmarts in favor of Media Literacy Week 2020, 2021 and 2022.
While this plan is well intended, it is reactive rather than proactive. Viewing misinformation related to the pandemic as a slip-up rather than a new normal is potentially very dangerous.
Last year the US passed federal law requiring $ 20 million to be invested in media literacy education. Since then, 15 states have introduced media literacy bills aimed at adding media literacy as part of the required high school curriculum. In addition to more consistent and clear messages from all levels of government, experts are mandating a certain level of training required for students. Right now, social media users have to take advantage of the formative platforms without the right equipment; they are placed in a sea of information with no life raft.
To address the misinformation problem, it is imperative for Canadian students to be taught media literacy by the time they graduate from high school. This basic education, coupled with the advocacy we continue to see from groups like MediaSmarts, is creating a more educated media consumer population. In the midst of this pandemic, media literacy, even more than epidemiology or politics, could prove to be the greatest lifesaver.
Feature graphic from @ the.beta.lab