Depictions of the 21st century have often included flying cars and robots as examples of advancements in society. Hardly did they mention universal access to information, online portals providing availability to everyone’s thoughts, and the usage of these platforms to influence public behavior. Every aspect of society has needed to respond and react to this rapid evolution of technology within the last two decades.
Portable laptops and cell phones have placed the internet within an arm’s length at any given moment, and our reliance on these devices for knowledge, communication and productivity leaves us susceptible to the consequences of misinformation and misplaced trust. The last few years have demonstrated to us in many ways that perceptions can be fabricated, information can be misconstrued, and too many people lack the tools required for basic media literacy.
Several traditional ways of identifying untrustworthy media sources are now outdated. I remember when I was younger and trying to identify reputable sources for school projects, I could easily flag websites for appearing obviously underdeveloped. Now, graphic design apps and website builders make it easy for anyone to create infographics and websites that have at least a superficial appearance of credibility. With access to these tools, people can disguise misinformation and sneak it past old mental filters. In addition, misinformation is no longer coming just from scammers trying to steal your money, but also from groups of people who work to distort narratives, push certain agendas, or even turn a profit. That type of messaging is more subtle and harder to detect.
Media outlets do this through many different tactics, including using a spin on words, adding sensationalism to headlines, and using flawed logic to come to conclusions not justified by the given evidence. The problem with outlets doing this is that it creates audiences with a different perception of events, who then may go and spread that information themselves. Misunderstanding and conflict ensue when one group is being told one story, and the other is being told something else. We’ve seen this over and over again between left and right-leaning media sources.
Another popular mechanism for misinformation is click bait stories. These stories are written with misleading headlines to catch a reader’s attention through often emotional or alarming statements, and they generate a lot of profit because of that. Despite being mostly inaccurate, click bait stories are very prominent in mainstream media, accounting for 25% of news articles in 2016. While online platforms are getting better at filtering these types of stories, many users are still unaware of what to look for when deciding if a story is accurate or not.
In the face of this difficulty, it is clear that it is important to equip as many people as possible with media literacy skills. Some schools have already implemented media literacy classes on their campuses. These courses teach students to look at sources, fact check information, and ask further questions about articles they are reading.
While media literacy classes in primary schools and even universities might be helpful, they can be difficult to update at the same rate that the media landscape changes. So, perhaps we need to shift the expectations of media literacy education from schools and institutions to the very platforms where they are needed.
Sometimes Google lets us know that a website we’re about to enter is suspicious. What if they could offer more information that engages and educates us in addition to this warning?
What if public figures, journalists or social media influencers spoke up about the importance of media literacy by showcasing some consequences of trusting misinformation in an action-packed and engaging way?
Twitter recently implemented a feature that pauses people from retweeting links they haven’t yet opened, in an attempt to limit or slow the sharing of unverified information. This is a good first step, but could they do more?
All of these are questions we could be asking of our online platforms, but it’s also important for us as individuals to learn how to navigate the misinformation that is currently out there. Here are some tips for spotting misinformation, and navigating the digital media world:
– Look at where the article you’re reading came from, and who wrote it. If the author is unlisted, or they use too many unnamed sources throughout the piece, consider cross-checking the information.
– Pay close attention when reading stories about emotional events or polarizing topics. Some news outlets will cherry pick information to help construct a story that they know their audience will agree with. This can lead to confirmation bias in many readers.
– It’s always important to look at information from different sources, even the ones you don’t agree with. Other news sources may be able to answer questions you have, and can provide a different understanding of issues being talked about.
There may not yet be a universal approach to spotting misinformation, but we can each take steps to become more aware about the information we are consuming every day. As technology continues to advance, and the media landscape with it, subjective information may be more prominent within our society. It is up to us to educate ourselves, and do our own research on these topics. Having audiences who are divided by the information they receive is dangerous for our democracy, and poses a challenge as we strive to work together and find solutions for the future.