Media Literacy: An Antidote For Misinformation

Feb 22, 2021

Education experts call for combatting crazy conspiracy theories, baseless rumors of rampant election fraud and misinformation about COVID-19 with media literacy.

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

“This was something we could clarify,” said Boyle, who teaches English and media literacy at the alternative school. Using newspapers, news shows, and the BLM Chicago website, she had students digging to find answers to questions about how BLM Chicago was organized, what its platform contained, and then, their thoughts on the movement. “I consider media literacy to be the urgent skill that students need now,” she said.

Her students uncovered the truth in a televised interview. BLM Chicago’s president explained that while a member had expressed personal support for Chicago looters, BLM didn’t support criminal behavior. “They were relieved,” Boyle said.

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

It was a teachable moment in a year that has had many of them – crazy conspiracy theories, baseless rumors of rampant election fraud, and so much disinformation about COVID-19 that health experts are saying we have an infodemic on top of the pandemic. As the fallout from those things continues, the Illinois General Assembly and U.S. Congress this year will consider measures promoting media literacy in schools. 

In Illinois, state Rep. Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez, a Cicero Democrat, filed a bill that would allow public high schools to offer a media literacy unit. Meanwhile at the federal level, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota will reintroduce the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act, which provides grant money for the development of media literacy guidelines and curriculum. Klobuchar initially brought the Act before Congress in 2019 over concerns that foreign adversaries were using information warfare to weaken democracy. Media literacy would help students to better recognize disinformation and to be better informed, she said.

While many schools and educators across America are teaching media literacy in different ways, few schools have a formal curriculum or requirement for it. “As always, we’re slower to adjust our education standards to the very rapid changes that 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 a simple matter of teaching how 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 that a student does,” said Earliana McLaurin, instructional technology coordinator at Oak Park and River Forest High School. With 97 percent of McLaurin’s students having smart phones, they, like most Americans, are saturated in media on a daily basis. Both in and out of the classroom, students consume information and produce projects in every medium from video to audio to writing. Students have to do more than spot mistruths, although that skill is seen as a starting point. 

Michael Spikes is a media literacy expert at Northwestern University.
Credit Michael Spikes

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

It is important to challenge our ecosystem, he said. “Depending on what a person’s ecosystem looks like, there could be a number of pollutants in it,” said Spikes, who has worked with teachers on media literacy curriculum. He tells educators not to be hung up on the ever changing platforms that their students use. Rather they should teach students how to evaluate information and to remain curious. For instance, information that brings on a strong emotion of fear or anger deserves a closer look because its intent may be to manipulate people’s feelings.

Spikes likes New York’s Stony Brook Center for News Literacy’s V.I.A. (verification, independent, accountable) model to determine whether content can be called journalism. If an outlet verifies facts with a second source independent from the first; is independent from outside controlling or influencing interests; and is accountable by working to ensure the information it shares is true, going so far as to be transparent when it makes a mistake – then, it is journalism. Otherwise, the outlet is producing another form of content like entertainment or promotional material. 

But even journalistic outlets produce commentary and entertainment, making it sometimes tricky to tell those pieces apart from straight news. The Chicago Tribune recently moved its columnists to a section of the paper separate from news stories to make a better distinction between the two. People also can go to outlets like AP News and Snopes.com for fact checking.

Besides challenging our ecosystem, we need to be aware of how we get in our own way of being well-informed because of how we’re wired to consume and evaluate information.

In the best of circumstances, people naturally gravitate to their underlying core 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 government is corrupt, they are more likely to believe there could be widespread election fraud. Our brains also give information more weight the more times we see it, the more effort other people expend to give us information, and how much we already think something is true. 

If we see a falsehood in several places, even if we know it is false, our brains will make us pause over it the more often we see it. After hearing news from a friend, seeing it on social media, and then hearing a commentator talk about it, we may start to think the falsehood must be true. Also, when groups like conspiracy theorists go to great lengths to prove a point, we think all that effort must have uncovered some facts. Then, we fail to be skeptical about the things we think we know. All those failings are part of being human, Rapp said.  

Add in 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 in terms of making it likely people might fall victim to fake news,” Rapp said. Not only are we more likely to be fooled during those times, but nefarious groups often take advantage and feed us misinformation when we’re most likely to believe it. Consider all the myths circulating about the COVID-19 vaccine, one even saying we’ll all be implanted with microchip surveillance technology. Some are outrageous, but other manipulations are more subtle. A social media post might look like a legitimate news article, but make up a side effect of a vaccine. We know vaccines have side effects, and maybe we’re worried about the safety of the vaccine. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem too unlikely that the news might be true, and we don’t think to check it out. In this case, the consumer is being manipulated by the news source and their 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 address media literacy by encouraging students to engage with different points of view, teaching them about reliable sources, and making students think about how they can be responsible digital citizens. One exercise shows social media posts from every day people, celebrities, and even presidents, to make the point that just because someone posts something doesn’t make it true.   

Matt McMurray, an instructional technology teacher leader at OPRF who previously taught history and civics, knows that when students say, “I heard this”, they have given merit to the information they are about to share. He’s found students often give equal weight to sources with very different credentials like 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 expose the extent of the information and evaluation crisis that we have,” he said. “Students are not yet equipped to navigate a lot of this and obviously many adults aren’t either.” 

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

He believes media literacy should be taught in all subjects so students learn how to engage with media in scientific, health, political, and other arenas. For instance, teaching students about how scientists verify their results leads to a greater understanding of why a vaccine might be important in fighting a pandemic Rubin said, “Our media literacy education really needs to be an across-the-curriculum effort that focuses on empowering students to form themselves as the kinds of impactful citizens who are capable of participating in the public sphere and who will help us solve all the humongous challenges that we’re facing right no,”.