A Crisis in Media Literacy

Think back to the last interesting argument you saw online.

Maybe it was a political discussion or a debate about some recent news. Maybe it was something more philosophical. Whether the discourse took place on Facebook, Twitter, or somewhere else, you can probably picture the profile photos of men and women (and maybe a few anonymous users) posting points back and forth, perhaps respectfully and perhaps not. You might be able to remember the comments that made you laugh, and the ones that made you mad.

Now imagine that same conversation – but with some of the most prolific posters replaced by paid social media pundits from countries like Russia or China. Imagine these individuals using highly partisan (and perhaps not entirely factual) memes and arguments to stir up the crowd, generating real division between the users. And watch in horror as the other participants are dragged in, unaware that they are being manipulated and misled.

This scenario is more likely than you might think. Facebook has identified pages with ties to Russia whose purpose seemed to be to mislead the American public. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Facebook said the accounts were created by Russian entities to exploit tensions among Americans and interfere with U.S. elections.” Collectively, these accounts had hundreds of thousands of followers and spent thousands promoting ‘fake news’.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter has also had issues with fake accounts, including impersonators. According to BuzzFeed, they have dragged their feet in closing down some of these accounts despite multiple warnings to Twitter by those being impersonated. The Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin operation, is the likely culprit behind the fake accounts, and The New York Times has well documented that company’s practices (a long read, but an excellent one). Similarly, China has been accused of having government employees post fake positive comments online for years.

For those who enjoy history, this might sound reminiscent of the radio stations and other deceptive media used by opposing governments during conflicts such as the Cold War. The goal of these stations was to spread information, or misinformation, and create discord from within. Determining the source of these broadcasts was often a challenge, making them hard for governments to contain.

This post is not an effort to warn you off of social media, or suggest that nothing online can be trusted (after all, I hope you will keep reading our blog!). What I am saying is that the reason these trolls and individuals are successful in manipulating people is that we do not prepare citizens with the right critical thought and media literacy skills to be successful. Our communications tools and technologies have evolved faster than our ability to prepare most people to protect themselves in this new, more complicated, and more connected world we live in.

Plus, these ‘trolls’ are crafty. They know the exact way to provoke a reaction – Professors Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania have written about how emotions like anger promote ‘virality’ and encourage sharing.

Helping citizens to pause, consider the source and possible motives, carefully analyze the information being presented, withhold judgment, and ultimately question whether there is any point in participating in these (often pointless) online debates are all habits we could all use some work in. It’s not enough to say ‘question everything you read’. And it’s a false equivalency to give opposing viewpoints equal weight because sometimes there isn’t blame “on both sides“. So what’s the answer?

  • Question the source. Look at what other information this source is publishing. Find out who funds their operations and how much information they are willing to share about themselves. Look at who else cites them, how big their audiences are, and how long they have been around.
  • Consider the importance. Is what you’re reading really going to change or affect your life? Don’t engage simply because Facebook wants you to engage with everything on your news feed. What’s the problem with just being a bystander?
  • Think critically about the issues. Even reputable media get the story wrong sometimes. Oftentimes, their biggest oversight is failing to consider the story from the perspective of those who are the subject of the story. Why do they do what they do, and would rational people do this? Is there a simpler answer than the one being put forward?

In the long run, I hope educators and politicians seriously consider how we can better train all Canadians to be effectively media literate in the age of the internet.

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