There’s not a lot in common between the “Mega Millions: How To Cash in On This Poker App” ad at the bottom of my Instagram feed and the CNN article on small businesses in a separate tab. The latter offers valuable insight into how the coronavirus pandemic may threaten our economy and young entrepreneurship worldwide. The former, however, is far more ominous, and could lead me down a familiarly unhealthy path in a few clicks. My data could be sold to some shadowy third-party company. I could get scammed out of a few dollars, if not more. And, at best, I would waste my time.
The dichotomy between these two is so pronounced, if not caricaturish. But they’re both media, and equally likely to have an impact on our locked in, vulnerable public in 2020.
“Media study does not replace text. It broadens and deepens our understanding of texts,” said university professor Philip M. Anderson. And within our increasingly digitized culture, our media intake has both skyrocketed and revolutionized life as we know it. Everything, from voter turnout at local elections to the brand of the vacuum cleaner in our living rooms, is affected by media. And with the Age of Information has come an Age of Misinformation, where lies and deception can proliferate at an alarmingly rapid rate.
Take the ongoing media disaster with hydroxychloroquine, a purported coronavirus cure that was hoarded by the public after the fraudulent claims of a Facebook video went viral. Despite the government and the CDC’s efforts to debunk this myth, the video was forwarded millions of times by social media users, thus threatening our already fragile lockdown restrictions.
And the issue extends far beyond the coronavirus. Social media websites like Facebook and Instagram are known to propagate misinformation and political dog-whistles, which can potentially skew our 2020 elections. The Cambridge Analytica scandal made headlines in recent years, but the rapid expansion of the Internet can only promise similar scandals in the future.
Many efforts have been made, by the government and by the public alike, to hold media companies accountable for spreading misinformation. This is only half of the issue, however. Media literacy needs to begin early, so that the future generations can understand how to navigate different sources and live in the Information Age responsibly.
Looking to educate yourself on media literacy? Here are a few tips provided by Columbia College, who have offered classes and seminars on “fake news” in the past:
1. Know which “news” sites are likely to be fake or biased
Lists have recently circulated of some less than trustworthy news sites. Here are a few to consider:
- Assistant Professor Melissa Zimdars, from the University of Iowa, recently evaluated and compiled a list of news sites that are often misleading, “clickbait-y” or satirical.
- Media Bias/Fact Check is dedicated to evaluating online news sources for bias and credibility. Check out the “questionable sources” page for their list of fake news sites.
* These lists are guidelines and are open for debate. You should critically evaluate all sources.
2. Know how to spot common features of fake “news” articles
With practice, you can learn to recognize features of fake news articles such as:
- Strange URLs
- Example: websites that end in “lo” or “.com.co” may be trying to pass themselves off as established news sites (ex: msnbc.com.co)
- Authors with a history of writing fake or misleading news
- Click on the author’s name to see if you can find other articles written by the author and information on their credentials or affiliations.
- Provocative, inflammatory or misleading headlines
- Read beyond the headline. Does the story match the claims in the headline? Does the headline exaggerate?
- Outdated information being presented as current information
- Is an article that was recently published discussing an event from many months ago?
- Lack of verifiable sources
- Ethical journalists make it clear where they are getting their information.
- Poor grammar
- This may be evidence that the article has not gone through an editorial process.
- Pictures or quotes that are untraceable
- Pictures and quotes may be manipulated or made up. Use TinEye reverse image search to find the origins of images.
3. Understand the Echo Chamber Effect of Social Media and Make a Habit of Seeking Out a Wider Variety of Voices
An echo chamber or filter bubble is the result of website algorithms designed to determine which content you want to see and which you don’t, based on your past behavior and other information about you. Over time, the web content you see represents an increasingly narrow range of information and ideas, and you are exposed to fewer and fewer experiences, ideologies, and perspectives that differ from yours.
To get out of your own filter bubble:
- Disable Google’s Personalized Search: Click “Settings” on the lower right of the Google search page, and select “History” from the menu. Click on “Activity Controls” from the left menu, then uncheck the box next to “Include Chrome browsing history and activity from websites and apps that use Google services.”
Media shapes and is shaped by people. On the internet, it represents the kind of valuable exchange of ideas, opinions, and languages that are necessary for a successfully globalized society. But too much of anything leads to the media circus we are currently struggling to cope with during the coronavirus outbreak.
My thoughts? Introduce a Media Literacy class in schools, and do it fast. Kids are getting on the internet at earlier and earlier ages. Some even learn to maneuver cyberspace before saying their first coherent word. Because the difference between education and miseducation, between a cautious public and a coronavirus-riddled country, now lies in a couple of clicks.