Op-Ed: Idaho Needs Media Literacy To Tackle COVID-19 Misinformation
With Idaho recently announcing crisis standards for care in hospitals across the state, we’re seeing firsthand the impact of myths, misunderstandings, and misinformation about COVID-19. In today’s media environment, Idahoans are bombarded from all directions with conflicting claims about COVID-19, and separating the truths from the untruths can be a challenge.
Much like vaccinating against a harmful virus, media literacy – the ability to analyze and evaluate media messages – can help us stay afloat in this sea of misinformation. But to be media literate we all need to know how our media system often puts engagement over accuracy, and how it takes advantage of our basic human tendencies to stick to our way of thinking and avoid tedious thinking.
Most people just don’t enjoy working through conflicting information and don’t make it to the top of our to-do lists. Making careful judgments requires the painful compromise of slowing down and putting in mental effort. Unfortunately, our brains evolved to take the easy route of listening to our intuition and relying on cognitive shortcuts, which are usually “good enough” to guide our decisions.
But these abbreviations also make us all prone to common mistakes. Our confirmation bias means that we are more likely to believe that new information is true if it is in line with our pre-existing beliefs.
Studies also show that these stories feel more believable and truer when exposed to false news. This is particularly problematic as scientists have shown that misinformation on social media often spreads faster and further than accurate information. As Jonathan Swift once wrote: “Falsehood flies and truth lags behind.”
The online attention economy knows all of this. Algorithms that work behind the scenes when you visit sites like Facebook and Google prioritize content that will keep your eyes on screen and increase the profitability of these giant companies. It’s easy to ignore the well-documented harmful effects of social media and forget that these aren’t benign public utilities.
Your information ecosystem is not neutral.
The algorithms that choose what content to display on your screen take on a life of their own as they begin to collect data about you and use that to customize your online experience. In a way, these algorithms know us better than we do ourselves.
This makes it easier than ever for bad actors to manipulate us through flashy propaganda that satisfies our deep desire to be part of a group and rewards our hunger for validation. You can play around with the algorithms and avoid misinformation by simply limiting your likes and sharing, or trying to follow a number of reliable sources, especially those you may disagree with.
Traditional news agencies are certainly imperfect, but printed and digital newspapers and non-commercial public media are still the best choices for reliable information. Organizations like this pay trained journalists to gather information and verify facts, not to advance a political agenda.
Instead, their goal is to get as close as possible to the truth and help us understand what is happening in our society. They follow industry codes of ethics and blame themselves when they make a mistake, unlike misinformation providers who peck out information to serve their narrow ideological interests.
Anecdotes about rare breakthrough cases and unusual vaccine side effects can understandably raise questions, but it’s more important to look at the overall evidence. Informed citizens know that vaccines and masks are the best ways to protect against the virus and contain the pandemic – even if you’ve already tested positive. “Doing your own research” is fine, but it’s no substitute for the meticulous work of experts who do their best to learn all about COVID-19 and bring us up to date as their knowledge grows and changes Change situations.
Find your way to reliable information by asking a few basic media literacy questions: Who produced this information, and why? Who is the target group for this and do I belong? Should the information evoke a certain reaction? It works? What information is missing and what questions remain unanswered? Does this help meet the community’s information needs or is it to promote a self-serving party agenda?
Above all, just slow down. Avoid quick judgments based on emotional reactions. If something feels true, it could be, but double-check to be sure.
When social media users are reminded to stop and think about the accuracy of a message, they are less likely to share misinformation online. Be consistently skeptical, not just about information that you don’t like. Do not repeat or reinforce misinformation by sharing it. Instead, share evidence-based information from reliable sources.
You can also encourage others to practice the same good information hygiene practices. When friends and family are struggling, listen to their concerns with empathy and ask open-ended questions to help them see if they are being misled.
We all need to remember that misinformation can cost lives and perpetuate great social disruptions, but together we can fight misinformation and help end this pandemic.
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Seth Ashley is Professor of Journalism and Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, where he also serves as a faculty advisor for student media. He is the author of “News Literacy and Democracy” and researches media literacy, media sociology and communication politics. He received his Ph.D. and MA from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. He worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines as well as a designer and technician for film, theater and music productions.
Brian Stone is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Boise State University. He received a Masters Degree in Neuroscience and Behavior and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. He specializes in cognitive psychology, including perception, learning, and the study of how people process information. Brian grew up in the Pacific Northwest and enjoys hiking, swimming, camping, and paddling in Idaho’s beautiful natural surroundings in his spare time.