Imagine a media-literate America – a place where the daily norm would be to fact-check polarising memes, Facebook and Twitter posts, and other sources of misinformation.
Picture Americans using our remote controls to pause the cable news blaring on their television screens to consider: Is this true?
Forget the superpowers of reading minds, flying or having superhuman strength – imagine if we practiced using our internal radar to alert us to what is fake and what is real. Instead of believing and spreading misinformation, people would not only be aware of its existence, they would stop spreading it.
Media literacy could affect every part of our lives – we know, because the lack of it is staggering. Instead of unknowingly surrendering as victims, we would be compelled to research reliability. We would trust the process of science instead of remaining petrified in our distrust of journalists and experts who try to spread truth.
Some may laugh off rapper Nicki Minaj spreading her vaccine hesitancy to her 22.8 million Twitter followers – repeating unproven claims that her cousin's friend in Trinidad got swollen testicles from the vaccine – but her posts, and Fox News' Tucker Carlson's promotion of it, aren't funny.
Much like those who spread baseless claims that the last presidential election was rigged, the Jan 6 insurrection was just a friendly protest and myriad other dangerous falsehoods, Minaj used her platform to spread lies.
The sobering truth is, many people have been fooled. More Americans – 48% now compared with 38% in 2018 – surveyed by the Pew Research Centre said they believe the federal government should do more to restrict false information online.
We are living in an infodemic and suffering its deadly ramifications. Misinformation (inaccurate and false information) and disinformation (intentionally false information) are so tangled many can't tell the difference from factual information or acknowledge when either or both are present. It's no wonder conspiracy theorists take advantage of so many.
On July 15, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared health misinformation an urgent medical public health crisis.
The World Health Organisation released a September 2020 joint statement with the United Nations, UNICEF, UNESCO and others acknowledging the Covid-19 pandemic is the first in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected. But WHO officials also said the infodemic continues to undermine the global response and jeopardises measures to control the pandemic.
As the WHO pointed out, and headlines reveal daily, misinformation is taking lives. The WHO offers online resources to flatten the infodemic curve. And it urged member states to develop their national action plans focused on empowering communities to develop solutions and resilience against misinformation and disinformation.
But that's a pipe dream considering the GOP in Texas has legislated to take away the right of privately owned social media companies to ban users for spreading disinformation. Gov. Greg Abbott enacted his absurd and hypocritical Freedom from Online Censorship Act on Sept 9, preventing digital companies from banning or restricting a user based on that person's "viewpoint" or the way the viewpoint is expressed.
So, it's up to us. Would knowing the difference between facts and lies make a difference? Would we have more respect for one another? Make smarter decisions? Would we be less selfish and more united? Would more of us be vaccinated today? Would we vote differently? To these questions, the answer is yes, but we need to get honest with ourselves and realise we don't know it all. Then we must set ourselves on the road of discovery and education.
There are many helpful online tools. The Washington, DC-based News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education non-profit, provides programs and resources to teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information, and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. The organisation recently shared a useful graphic on Twitter that guides teachers in teaching news literacy in polarising times.
We can't continue to live in silos, consuming online information fed to us by powerful algorithms that take us down rabbit holes of falsehoods. We are all capable of learning and growing, even as adults. We can all do better if we make it a priority. But first, we must decide to do better. – San Antonio Express-News/Tribune New Service