How to kill a conspiracy theory? With media literacy and better critical thinking


The way society consumes news media has changed. Gone are the days when newspapers and network anchors were widely esteemed and trusted sources of information on current events. Today, social media has an outsized impact on shaping people’s opinions, and partisan platforms allow viewers to choose what is “reliable” based on their own preconceptions rather than facts, analysis and objective research.

In such an environment, conspiracy theories flourish, objective and knowable facts are often disputed, and polarization deepens. How does a society begin to push back against this dangerous wave of misinformation and pave the way to a shared understanding and collective agreement about what is – and isn’t – true?

A great place to start is media literacy, a set of skills closely related to critical thinking, but distinct enough to be their own discipline. As organizations such as Media Literacy Now point out, being media literate in the 21st century means having the ability to decode media messages and assess their influence on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

There is clear evidence that these skills can have a huge impact on people’s ability to identify and demystify the disinformation, misinformation and propaganda they are fighting in today’s media ecosystem.

This summer, the Reboot Foundation interviewed more than 500 Americans and explored the intersection of conspiracies, scientific knowledge, critical thinking, and media literacy. The survey revealed that around 25% of participants were willing to believe at least one of the conspiracy theories we tested. People who rely heavily on social media for their information were more likely to believe, as were people who identified as politically conservative.

The survey also probed participants’ exposure to media literacy principles at school and found that those who had some media literacy were 26% less likely believe in conspiracy theories. Other research confirms this. Simply, knowing the information gives people a fighting chance against conspiracy supporters.

And there is more good news. Reboot’s survey found that an overwhelming majority of the public – 84% – support the need for media literacy in schools, and 90% said they support the critical thinking required for K-12 year.

As you might guess, the downside is that few people said they learned about media literacy in school: only 42% said they learned to analyze science news in high school, and only 38% said to have thought about the messages of the media there.

Teaching the next generation to master the media will require an investment of time and resources commensurate with the challenge. Groups like the National Association for Media Literacy Education and Media Literacy Now are working hard to create resources for teachers, partner with schools, and call for new laws and regulations that will ensure media literacy is part of the education of every child.

“We work at local, state and national levels to support advocates and drive policy change that elevates media literacy as a priority,” said Erin McNeill, Founder and President of Media Literacy Now. “A solid foundation in media literacy is essential to a young person’s health and well-being and to their participation in the civic and economic life of our democracy.

And they know success. In the past two years alone, five states — including Utah, Delaware and Illinois — have passed a provision requiring their departments of education to address media literacy. Membership lists of the National Association for Media Literacy have doubled in the past five years.

Twenty years ago, journalist Linda Ellerbee wrote that “media literacy is not only important, it is absolutely essential. It’s going to make the difference between whether children are a tool of mass media or whether mass media is a tool that children can use.

While it’s doubtful that Ms. Ellerbee envisioned our vast and confusing media ecosystem, her words nonetheless resonate today. In the fight against misinformation, media literacy is our best tool. It’s time to put it to work, everywhere.

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