With misinformation spreading rampantly across social media and other digital platforms, media literacy and critical thinking skills are more important than ever. Misinformation (false or out-of-context information being presented as factual) and disinformation (false information being spread intentionally to deceive readers) have had major impacts on society in recent years—from political elections to public health.
For example, since the 2016 U.S. presidential election we have learned that Russian operatives intentionally spread disinformation about the candidates on social media in order to sway the election results. The public response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also been impacted by misinformation, with nearly 90 percent of Republicans surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation believing at least one false claim about the virus or the vaccine.
In an effort to tackle this massive problem, the state of Illinois has become the first state in the nation to mandate media literacy education for all high school students, starting in the 2022-2023 school year. The goal of the curriculum is to teach students how to apply critical thinking skills as they’re consuming media—from scrolling on social media to watching network news reports.
What is media literacy?
Media literacy is the ability to evaluate the quality, accuracy, and reliability of information from media sources. As soon as a child is old enough to start using their devices independently, they should start learning media literacy skills. To start practicing these skills in your own family, it might be helpful to take cues from the new Illinois curriculum.
In their new course, Illinois high schoolers will learn about things like bias in media, the importance of consulting a variety of sources, and how to tell if a source is trustworthy. Students will participate in discussions and open debate in order to pose and respond to questions about the credibility of information found in various media sources.
Media Literacy Basics
Just like we use critical thinking all the time when we need to make everyday decisions, we can also use these skills when we’re looking at social media or doing internet research. The first rule of media literacy is, “Don’t believe everything you see!” The following tips are good to keep in mind when teaching your family media literacy skills:
- Ask questions! Taking a claim on the internet at face value can often leave out a lot of important info. When reading something online that claims to be factual, ask yourself questions like, “Who created this and why?” or “What details or points of view are not included?”
- Consider the source. A scientific journal or reputable news source holds more weight than a blog post or personal social media account, primarily because the claims they make tend to be peer-reviewed and fact checked. Social media profiles with randomized usernames, stock images as profile photos, or accounts that post at all hours of the day and night could be bots specifically created to spread disinformation.
- Consider other sources. To get reassurance that a claim online is true, a quick internet search can show how other sources approach the topic. Compare the original claim to a few other sources to see if there’s general agreement, or if it’s a debated topic. It can also be helpful to click the embedded links in an article to see what types of sources are being cited. Typically, reliable sources will link to other reputable sources to back up their claims.
- Use common sense. Does the oversimplification of a problem seem too good to be true? It probably is. Bold claims and quick fixes for complicated problems are often rooted in disinformation. Try a reverse image search of any images in a post—disinfo often uses old photos to push a misleading narrative.
What to do if you see misinformation online
As misinformation has spread, largely unchecked, over the last several years, it’s become more and more important for social media users to learn how to spot and report it. Part of being a responsible internet citizen is learning what to do about misinfo and disinfo online.
- Report it to the appropriate platform. The best way to help cut down on misinfo online is to report it immediately. Most social media platforms have a way to report false claims on their platforms.
- Don’t share or repeat misinfo. Even if your goal is to debunk a false claim, sharing or repeating any misinformation can backfire and cause it to spread more widely. Instead, find reliable sources to share that contain factual info counter to the misinfo.
- Escalate to media watchdogs. Common Cause has a disinformation tip line where stubborn false claims online can be submitted. Organizations like these compile misinfo from across the internet to hold social media platforms and tech companies accountable.
It can certainly be tempting to comment on a false claim to correct the poster, but this ends up boosting the post to even more people and spreading the misinfo even more. It’s important to keep in mind that any type of engagement will amplify misinformation, so the best policy is to report it and move on without sharing, liking, or commenting.