As misinformation becomes a weapon, media literacy is now a vital skill
Stephen Dunn / AP
Sunday, August 15, 2021 | 2 a.m
Illinois is the first state to require media literacy classes in high schools.
This is an excellent ministry for children in Illinois, and Nevada should follow suit to protect our children from misinformation.
News and social media literacy is in an alarming state in the US, and not just among younger people. We are bombarded with examples of its effects: A significant number of Americans who believe the big lie of refusing to get COVID-19 vaccinations because they believe they contain microchips or make people magnetic fall so far into the QAnon abyss that they alienate family and friends etc.
Just this week, a QAnon supporter confessed to killing his children believing they would become “lizardmen” and join other lizardmen who secretly rule the world. He specifically cited QAnon groups as “educating” about the existence of lizard people. Fragile heads fall victim to terrible manipulation, and people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are only too happy to help.
Amid this inability to distinguish fact from fiction and truth from far-right propaganda, we see catastrophic effects on our democracy and society. The January 6 riot, the Republican Party’s electoral repression campaign in states across the country, a new COVID-19 outbreak fueled by vaccine resistance, and more devastation comes because too many Americans have entered the country from far-right media and international actors Misinformation was used as a weapon against us.
Social media is not going to do enough to curb the spread of misinformation because it capitalizes on the lies that are destroying our society, and gullible people are directly drawn into “doing their research,” which actually means an algorithm they are using force-fed a Facebook post or a Youtube video that pulls them up.
Increasing young people’s media literacy is an important step in solving the problem.
It’s not about pretending what they read, who they see on TV, or which social media influencers they follow.
It’s about teaching them to question what they read and see, determine if the information is from a credible source, and validate the content they are consuming.
One tool includes “lateral reading,” a form of fact-checking in which Internet users open new browser tabs and search for multiple sources to verify information. Other elements include teaching children to distinguish between news and opinions, how to spot tell-tale signs of misinformation (e.g. simply because it has a large audience.
This is an urgent need, as numerous surveys and studies show. For example, in a 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group, only three out of 3,000 high school students shown a video allegedly depicting US election fraud could determine that the video was from Russia, even though a quick search would have revealed it it had been exposed.
Meanwhile, a 2018 Pew poll found that less than 35% of American adults were able to distinguish factual statements from opinions, and that Americans were far more likely to accept information as accurate if they supported their political beliefs.
As propagandists and foreign actors become more and more sophisticated in producing misinformation, media literacy becomes more important.
Not telling our children about it is like giving them car keys with no driver training and sending them out onto the street with signs designed to confuse and mislead them. Also, let’s not forget that terrorists, both foreign and domestic, use misinformation and propaganda against young people in order to recruit and radicalize them.
Indeed, this should be considered a vital skill. We live in an infosphere today, and being a discerning consumer of information is just as fundamental to existence in our society as any skill taught in school. The students should know how the internet can lie to them in order to recognize biased media of all kinds, to separate facts from opinions.
Not understanding the media is not only dangerous for our children, but also for our democracy. While democracies thrive when people of different opinions come together to work out solutions to problems, the process suffers when there are no common facts or when one side believes in wild conspiracies. Try to find common ground with someone who thinks that the leaders of a party are involved in an international pedophilia murder ring or that wildfires are caused by Jewish space lasers. While we’re at it, can we also offer adult education courses on media understanding?
Some countries are ahead of the US in addressing these issues, including Finland, where media literacy begins in elementary school and has been an important part of the curriculum since 2016. Why the focus? Russia, which is right next door, has been bombarding the country with misinformation for years to divide and destabilize it – it is trying the same with the US
In response, the Finns developed an integrated program to teach cross-platform literacy. For example, math students learn how statistics can be manipulated, and art students learn how images can be manipulated to distort their meaning.
“Today’s children … don’t look for the news, they stumble upon it on WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat,” a Finnish secondary school teacher told The Guardian. “Or more precisely, an algorithm chooses it, just for them. You need to be able to handle it critically. Not cynical – we don’t want them to think that everyone is lying – but critical. “
The instructions work. In a study in which 35 European nations were measured for their resistance to misinformation, Finland ranked 1st doubt and division.
It is time the US – and Nevada – took a similar approach.
Addressing this problem means protecting our children, each other and our democracy.