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October 27, 2021

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With misinformation weaponized, media literacy is now a vital skill


Stephen Dunn / AP

In this, Dec. 20, 2017 photo, Ariana Mamudi, 14, a freshman in the Brookfield, Conn., High School Digital Student class, searches for information about Cyber Bullying. The required class teaches media literacy skills and has the students scrutinize sources for their online information.

Illinois has become the first state to require teaching of media literacy in high schools, with lawmakers there approving a bill last month to include one unit of instruction on the subject starting with the 2022-23 school year.

This is an outstanding service to Illinois children, and Nevada should follow suit to help protect our children from misinformation.

News and social media literacy is in an alarming state in the U.S., and not just among younger people. We’re bombarded by examples of its effects: a significant number of Americans believing in the Big Lie, refusing to get COVID-19 vaccinations based on the false belief that they contain microchips or make people magnetic, falling so far into the QAnon abyss that they alienate family and friends, etc.

Just this week, a QAnon follower confessed to killing his children because he believed they were going to become “lizard people” and join other lizard people secretly running the world. He specifically cited QAnon groups as “educating him” on the existence of lizard people. Fragile minds are prey to horrible manipulations, and people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are all too happy to help.

Amid this inability to tell fact from fiction and truth from far-right propaganda, we’re seeing disastrous effects on our democracy and our society. The Jan. 6 insurrection, the Republican Party’s voter suppression campaign in states across the country, a new COVID-19 outbreak fueled by vaccination resistance, and more destruction is occurring because too many Americans have become misled by extremist right-wing media and international actors who are weaponizing misinformation against us.

Social media will not do enough to curb the spread of misinformation because it profits from the lies that destroy our society, and gullible people are sucked right in when they “do their research,” which actually means an algorithm force-feeds them a Facebook post or Youtube video that winds them up.

Increasing media literacy among young people is an important step toward addressing the problem.

This isn’t about mandating what they read, who they watch on TV or which social media influencers they follow.

It’s about teaching them to question what they’re reading and watching, determine whether the information comes from a credible source and vet the content they’re consuming.

One tool involves “lateral reading,” a form of fact-checking in which internet users open new browser tabs and search for multiple sources to vet information. Other elements include teaching children how to differentiate between news and opinion, how to spot telltale signs of misinformation (such as content being disguised as coming from a credible site but a slightly different URL) and disabusing them of the notion that a news source is credible simply because it has a large audience.

This is a critical need, as borne out by numerous surveys and studies. Example: In a study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group in 2016, only three of 3,000 high school students who were shown a video purportedly showing U.S. election fraud could tell that the video came from Russia, even though a quick search would have revealed that it had been debunked.

Meanwhile, a Pew survey in 2018 revealed that fewer than 35% of adult Americans could differentiate factual statements from opinions, and that Americans were far more likely to accept information as accurate when it supported their political beliefs.

With propagandists and foreign actors becoming ever-more sophisticated in producing misinformation, media literacy gains in importance.

Not educating our children about it is like giving them the keys to the car without driver’s education training, and sending them onto roads with signs designed to confuse and misdirect them. Let’s not forget, too, that both foreign and domestic terrorists direct misinformation and propaganda at young people in attempts to recruit and radicalize them.

Indeed, this should be considered an essential life skill. We live in an infosphere now, and being sophisticated consumers of information is as fundamental to existing in our society as any skill taught in school. Students should know how the internet can lie to them, to identify biased media of all types, to be able to separate fact from opinion.

Not understanding media is dangerous not only to our children but to our democracy. While democracies thrive when people of different opinions come together to hammer out solutions to problems, the process suffers when there’s not a shared set of facts or one side believes in wild conspiracies. Try finding common ground with someone who thinks the leaders of one party are involved in an international pedophilia-murder ring or that wildfires are being caused by Jewish space lasers. While we’re at it, can we offer adult education classes in understanding media too?

Some countries are ahead of the U.S. in addressing these issues, including Finland, where media literacy education begins in elementary school and has been an important part of the curriculum since 2016. Why the focus? Russia, located right next door, has been bombarding the country with misinformation for years in an attempt to divide and destabilize it — the same thing it’s trying to do to the U.S.

In response, the Finns developed an integrated program to teach multiplatform literacy. Math students are taught how statistics can be manipulated, for instance, and fine-arts students learn how images can be altered to skew their meaning.

“Kids today … don’t look for news, they stumble across it, on WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat,” a Finnish secondary school teacher told The Guardian. “Or more precisely, an algorithm selects it, just for them. They must be able to approach it critically. Not cynically — we don’t want them to think everyone lies — but critically.”

The instruction works. In a study measuring 35 European nations in their resistance to misinformation, Finland was ranked No. 1. The study was based on measurements of a number of indices — press freedom, transparency and social justice among them — that provide avenues for external actors to sow doubt and division.

It’s time for the U.S. — and Nevada — to take a similar approach.

Addressing this issue is a matter of protecting our children, each other and our democracy.