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High frequency: disinformation and media literacy


… or how I found out that Tom Hanks was not executed by the US military

Recently, a concerned reader sent me an email with a link to a story alleging that shots of the Pfizer-made COVID-19 vaccine contained venom and were used intentionally to kill recipients.

This claim has been debunked because it is not true. But, you know what? I clicked the link.

Clicking a random link in my inbox probably wasn’t the smartest decision for a number of reasons, including this: I did exactly what the author of the misleading article wanted – I clicked it and the website owner received advertising revenue because of my visit.

Almost every website you visit these days has ads. The beacon is no exception, as running a website is not free. To paraphrase something, a college professor once said to me, “If something is free on the internet, you are the product.”

The internet does exactly what television – which some of us were once told would rot our brains – does, exactly. We are inundated with pictures of products that we want to buy. The difference is that I don’t have to ask my parents to call a toll-free number. I can click the ad and buy it myself!

Also bad are headlines or claims that are technically true but have no important context. You can get a taste of it by reading all about the COVID-19 vaccines. Side effects reports are often taken out of the context of making claims like “Man dies after taking the COVID-19 vaccine”.

It’s not to be underestimated how great the internet is for keeping us connected, but there is also a rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation refers, as The Associated Press puts it, to “false information spread on a particular subject that could be mistaken for truth”. Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of falsehoods with the intent to confuse or mislead.

The repeatedly refuted claim that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine has been linked to the development of autism in children is misinformation. Spreading claims about the alleged links between vaccines and autism on Facebook with the intent to discourage people from vaccinating or selling their children is disinformation.

Disinformation gets clicks because it confirms our bias. We are all guilty of prejudice, myself included.

The concerned reader who reached out to me also advised me to investigate another website. When I visited, the headline of the day was “Military Executed Tom Hanks”.

Well, some superficial research let me know that in fact this did not happen. But do you know what I did? I clicked on the article and was immediately greeted by advertisements.

Looking around the website again, I found a disclaimer that the website “contains humor, parody and satire”. However, this page was shared with me as if it were a perfectly reliable source of news.

We could all tolerate taking a media literacy course or two because if we are to have a constructive discussion about the many problems we all face – including the global pandemic that continues to spread and claim the lives of members of our community – we have to be at eye level. We have to exist in the same universe.

In my universe, Tom Hanks seems alive, but many of my neighbors are not.

I would hate to know that I played a role in every death because I believed in a lie aimed at selling ads.

– noah@beacononlinenews.com


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