Media literacy should be a subject in the school curriculum

In 2017, I had the enormous privilege of doing an internship at the New Zealand Science Media Center as part of my honors year at the University of Otago. I’ve blogged, edited the website, managed social media accounts, and sent my fair share of infuriating and angry emails from anti-vaxxers, truthful 1080s, anti-5G fanatics, and all manner of people opposed to science. Which is to say, that’s when I became well acquainted with the phenomenon of misinformation – fake news, if you will – circulating online. A few weeks ago I watched a video on Facebook in which an impassioned woman stuck a motley collection of knives, forks and spoons on the upper arms and cleavage of her elderly parents, claiming that the Covid vaccine had made them obscene and irreversibly magnetic. No amount of reasoning in the comments section could dissuade her; nor would she deign to place the utensils on her parents’ skin after first applying a light dusting of talcum powder to counter the obvious effects of friction between the skin, its secretions and hair, and the aforementioned spoons.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused waves of misinformation, exacerbated by anxiety, uncertainty and increased use of social media during lockdowns. Indeed, in March 2020, the World Health Organization warned that the Covid-19 pandemic had been accompanied by an “infodemic” – “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – which makes it difficult for people to find trusted sources and trustworthy advice when they need it”.

It’s not just vaccine science that’s prone to distortion, manipulation, and outright lies. Misinformation about anything and everything from climate change to the conflict in Ukraine abounds online, on social media, in forums, often seeping into real life. The naivety, gullibility and, it must be said, meanness involved in producing and sharing such information can have devastating consequences.

In my research for this article, I briefly considered creating a series of bright and pretty infographics with twisted truths and outright lies about a trivial topic – like the color of green beans or the dangers of epilators – just to see how far and how quickly such lies could proliferate on Instagram and Facebook. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it; In no way did I want to be responsible for the lies and confusion, even about something as insignificant as legumes or leg hair. Frankly, I don’t need to conduct such an experiment; a simple scroll on Twitter or Facebook is illuminating enough.

What can we do? Many people think that to fight such misinformation, it is enough to drown it out with a massive volume of true and factual information, from reliable and verified sources. This information deficit model holds that the public is rational and that conspiracy theories and certain beliefs, such as those of anti-vaxxers, stem from simple ignorance and insufficient scientific knowledge. While providing factual, engaging and accessible information on topics such as vaccine safety and climate change is important, it is not enough.

Another answer – completely understandable – could be to cancel all the cases of misinformation that one encounters. But such an approach is like fighting a cybernetic hydra; as soon as one ugly head is severed, two more spring up in its place. As soon as a far-right anti-vaxxer or conspiracy theorist is misrepresented, two other insidious sources of misinformation arise, proliferating on new and varied platforms, while claiming that their freedom of expression is denied – that they are sacrificed on the altar of truth – or some other equally ridiculous statement. I have yet to meet a Hercules capable of defeating such a beast.

The only viable and lasting answer is to teach people how to better identify disinformation and manipulation – namely, to teach media literacy – the practice of critically evaluating media, whether television , video games or social media.

According to the Information Competence Project at California Polytechnic State University, media literacy encompasses the following skills: the ability to assess the credibility of information received as well as the credibility of the information source; sensitivity and awareness of verbal and visual arguments, recognition of metaphor and use of symbols in entertainment, advertising and political commentary; the ability to discern between appeals to emotion and logic; and the ability to recognize hidden and overt calls.

Research has shown that simply encouraging people to consider the accuracy of everything they see in their social media feeds significantly improves their ability to reject misinformation while reducing the intent to share misinformation. What more could be done if media literacy was integrated into every subject of the school curriculum — if it was taken seriously at all levels of education? What could be accomplished if more civil servants, journalists and NGO workers were trained in media literacy and encouraged to recognize their own biases and preconceptions inherent in their reporting and policy writing? I’d bet that far fewer tinfoil hats would spawn in a muddy field outside of the hive, to begin with.

Media literacy can also counter other negative effects of social media. A number of studies, for example, have shown a link between heavy social media use and anxiety and depression. The pressure of comparing yourself to all the shiny and beautiful things online can be overwhelming. The ability to critically evaluate the filtered, curated, and highly manipulated posts of certain influencers is essential to objectively viewing this content and can significantly reduce body dissatisfaction that stems from the unqualified consumption of media messages. Media literacy also recognizes and counteracts media bias – the damaging tactics of news distributors when selecting the events, stories and voices that are covered, broadcast and amplified in mainstream media.

It’s not as simple as banning conspiracy theorists or shielding the gullible from misinformation. Anyone, under the right circumstances, can fall for misinformation. We must teach ourselves and others how to distinguish science from misinformation, lies and propaganda from peer-reviewed research and verifiable data. It’s an ongoing process, but worth investing in.

– Jean Balchin, a former student of English at the University of Otago, is studying at the University of Oxford after obtaining a Rhodes scholarship.

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