Media Literacy: An Antidote to Disinformation

Education experts call for tackling wild conspiracy theories, baseless rumors of rampant voter fraud, and misinformation about COVID-19 through media literacy.

After participating in Black Lives Matter rallies and protests in August, some of Virginia Boyle’s students came to her class at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School saying they had heard that BLM Chicago supported looting, and was it true?

“It was something we could clear up,” said Boyle, who teaches English and media literacy at the alternative school. Using newspapers, current affairs shows and the BLM Chicago website, she asked students to dig for answers to questions about BLM Chicago’s organization, the content of its platform , then their reflections on the movement. “I see media literacy as the urgent skill that students need right now,” she said.

His students discovered the truth in a television interview. The President of BLM Chicago explained that while a member has expressed personal support for Chicago looters, BLM does not support criminal behavior. “They were relieved,” Boyle said.

Credit Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School


Virgina Boyle teaches at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School in Chicago.

It was a teachable moment in a year that has had many – wild conspiracy theories, baseless rumors of rampant voter fraud and so much misinformation about COVID-19 that health experts say we have an infodemic. in addition to the pandemic. As the fallout from these events continues, the Illinois General Assembly and the US Congress will consider measures to promote media literacy in schools this year.

In Illinois, State Representative Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez, a Democrat from Cicero, introduced a bill that would allow public high schools to offer a media education unit. Meanwhile, at the federal level, US Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota will reintroduce the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act, which provides grants for the development of media literacy guidelines and programs. Klobuchar originally introduced the law to Congress in 2019, fearing foreign adversaries would use information warfare to weaken democracy. Media literacy would help students better recognize misinformation and become better informed, she said.

While many schools and educators across America teach media literacy in different ways, few schools have a formal curriculum or requirement for it. “As always, we are slower to adjust our educational standards to the very rapid changes we see in our social world, which is natural,” said Jonah S. Rubin, assistant professor of anthropology at Knox College in Galesburg. .

Literacy in schools is no longer just a matter of learning to read and write. “I think too often people relegate media literacy to a research paper. It’s not that. Especially with remote learning, it’s embedded in literally everything a student does,” said Earliana McLaurin, instructional technology coordinator at Oak Park and River Forest High School. With 97% of McLaurin students having smartphones, they, like most Americans, are saturated with media on a daily basis. Inside and outside the classroom, students consume information and produce projects in everything from video to audio to writing. Students need to do more than spot falsehoods, although this skill is considered a starting point.


Michael Spikes is a media literacy expert at Northwestern University.

Think of all the content we browse as an information ecosystem, unique to each of us, said Michael Spikes, a doctoral student at Northwestern University and an expert in media literacy. Some ecosystems only include social media, while others have a mix of information from various platforms such as news programs, blogs, podcasts and videos. “We’ve never lived in a time where we have so much access to so much information, and it almost seems like we’re the least informed,” Spikes said.

It is important to question our ecosystem, he said. “Depending on how a person’s ecosystem looks, there can be any number of pollutants,” said Spikes, who worked with teachers on the media literacy curriculum. He tells educators not to get hooked on the ever-changing platforms their students use. Instead, they should teach students to evaluate information and stay curious. For example, information that elicits a strong emotion of fear or anger deserves closer examination because its intent may be to manipulate people’s feelings.

Spikes likes New York’s Stony Brook Center for News Literacy’s VIA (verification, independent, accountable) model for determining whether content qualifies as journalism. If an outlet checks the facts with a second source independent of the first; is independent of controlling or influencing outside interests; and is accountable by working to ensure the information he shares is true, going so far as to be transparent when he makes a mistake – then that’s journalism. Otherwise, the outlet produces another form of content such as entertainment or promotional material.

But even news outlets produce commentary and entertainment, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish these articles from direct news. The Chicago Tribune recently moved its columnists to a section of the newspaper separate from reporting to better distinguish between the two. People can also check out outlets like AP News and to check the facts.

In addition to challenging our ecosystem, we need to be aware of how we are holding ourselves back from being well-informed due to how we are wired to consume and evaluate information.

In the best-case scenario, people naturally gravitate to their core underlying beliefs and spin information to agree with those beliefs, said David N. Rapp, professor of psychology and learning sciences at Northwestern University. For example, if people think the government is corrupt, they are more likely to believe that there might be widespread voter fraud. Our brain also gives more weight to information, the more we see it, the more others try to give us information and how much we already think something is true.

If we see a lie in more than one place, even if we know it’s false, our brain will make us dwell on it the more often we see it. After hearing the news from a friend, seeing it on social media, and then hearing a commentator talking about it, we may start to think the lie must be true. Also, when groups like conspiracy theorists go to great lengths to prove a point, we believe that all of that effort must have exposed some fact. Then we fail to be skeptical of the things we think we know. All of these flaws are part of being human, Rapp said.

Add the stressors, worries about our lives, feelings of being in danger, and we don’t have the ability to analyze information as carefully as we normally would. “That’s definitely a factor that makes people more likely to fall victim to fake news,” Rapp said. Not only are we more likely to be duped during these times, nefarious groups often take advantage and feed us false information when we are most likely to believe it. Consider all the myths floating around about the COVID-19 vaccine, one even saying that we will all be implanted with microchip monitoring technology. Some are outrageous, but other manipulations are more subtle. A social media post may look like a legitimate news article, but be a side effect of a vaccine. We know that vaccines have side effects and we may be concerned about the safety of the vaccine. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem too unlikely that the news is true, and we don’t think to verify it. In this case, the consumer is manipulated by the source of information and his own thoughts. People need to be aware of both their information ecosystems and their own predispositions.

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, history and English teachers and librarians approach media literacy by encouraging students to engage with different viewpoints, teaching them about trusted sources and by making students think about how they can be responsible digital citizens. An exercise shows social media posts from everyday people, celebrities and even presidents, to show that just because someone posts something doesn’t mean it’s true.

Matt McMurray, an instructional technology lead teacher at the OPRF who previously taught history and civics, knows that when students say, “I heard that,” they’ve given credit to the information. ‘they’re about to share. He found that students often gave equal weight to sources with very different credentials, such as a news clip and a Twitter video. What worries him most is the often casual acceptance of information. “This year has done a lot to reveal the extent of the information and assessment crisis we have,” he said. “Students aren’t yet equipped to navigate much of this and obviously many adults aren’t either.”

Experts say it is essential to teach students not only how to evaluate the information they consume and their biases, but also to help them see how it shapes their beliefs and how they think about the world, and then how they engage in it. “We must not underestimate the emotional and political sophistication of our young people. They are deeply and critically engaged with the world we live in, in all sorts of creative ways,” said Rubin, who through Knox College studies media literacy and how it shapes young people.

He believes that media literacy should be taught in all subjects so that students learn to interact with media in science, health, politics and other fields. For example, teaching students how scientists check their results helps them understand why a vaccine might be important in fighting a pandemic. students to develop as the kind of influential citizens who can participate in the public sphere and who will help us solve all the colossal challenges we face right now”.

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