An antidote to the viral sludge of misinformation

There are tools that can help identify credible sources from bogus information

By Elizabeth Price

On September 25, 2023

News literacy is the ability to determine the credibility of news and other information, and to recognize the standards of fact-based journalism to know what to trust, share and act on, writes Elizabeth Price.(Rudzhan Nagiev / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Imagine this: You’re scrolling through social media, digesting the stories du jour. You land on a series of posts about local news in Texas. One of the posts claims Sen. Ted Cruz tweets the exact same message every time there’s a mass shooting.

This raises some red flags, so you share the post to your family’s group chat. The responses start rolling in; your cousin on one end of the political spectrum has some choice words about Cruz. Your brother takes a different stance and starts bashing the news media. The group chat is exploding, and soon, one of your relatives posts the claim to Facebook. There, the reactions and comments continue to roll in, hotter than Dallas in July.

This very falsehood about Cruz was the subject of a viral meme spread earlier this year by partisan accounts. If you believed it — or even spread it — you’ve been duped. A search of the senator’s social posts show that he has not posted the same message over and over again. Rather, the claim was misinformation: false or misleading information that is shared regardless of its intent.

Even people with positive intentions fall prey to misinformation, often out of a desire to inform others. Disinformation, on the other hand, is a subset of misinformation that is deliberately created or shared with the intent to mislead or misinform others.

Mis-and disinformation present a crisis for us all. From sourcing reliable information about your health to understanding the causes of our warming planet, to making sense of our politics, knowing what to trust and how to find credible sources can have serious, even life-threatening, consequences.

Misinformation helps drive dizzying extremes, sowing confusion and apathy. It destabilizes our country. Recent polling shows an alarming number of Americans believe false claims about our national elections. Confidence in our democratic systems is shaken: 80% of Americans report a lack of faith in the integrity of our elections, according to a 2022 ABC News survey. Further, most Americans say that “misinformation is increasing political extremism and hate crimes,” such as those that target specific religious or racial groups, as reported in a 2022 poll from The Associated Press.

Luckily, we can avoid falling for misinformation and safeguard our newsfeeds — and our sanity – while also remaining well-informed.

Enter news literacy. News literacy is the ability to determine the credibility of news and other information, and to recognize the standards of fact-based journalism to know what to trust, share and act on. News literacy is a viable antidote to the viral sludge of misinformation. These are skills that everyone can learn.

Becoming more news literate means stopping when you see a viral meme and taking the time to do your own fact-checking before re-sharing. This can be as simple as using Google’s reverse image search to find the original source of a sensational photo. Being news literate means checking out your sources by opening a new tab and seeing what other sites have to say, a skill called lateral reading that requires minimal time and energy. You can learn to analyze news media bias and cultivate a varied news diet, and guard yourself against being misled.

The organization I’m with, the nonpartisan, nonprofit News Literacy Project, is working to make sure more people have these skills. NLP teaches people how to think, not what to think, encouraging people of all ages to approach news media with skepticism, not cynicism. More and more people recognize the need for our work: The Library of Congress recently honored NLP with its prestigious David M. Rubenstein Prize for “exceptional and sustained depth in its commitment to the advancement of literacy.”

Evidence is growing that building news literacy skills can counteract the dangerous effects of misinformation by preparing people to act and respond in real time against false content. There is simply too much misinformation for fact checkers to keep up with, but research suggests news literacy skills act as a “pre-bunk” when people come across false or misleading information.

In independent studies, the value of news literacy shines through: When students learned a new curriculum called Civic Online Reasoning, developed by Stanford University’s Stanford History Education Group, they performed “twice as well” on a test to spot dubious and misleading websites than before learning the curriculum. NLP performs its own independent evaluations as well; in the 2021-22 school year, 7 out of 10 students could successfully recognize when a social media post did not provide credible evidence after completing free lessons on Checkology, our free e-learning platform. That’s a 15-point improvement.

The availability of credible information, or the lack thereof, affects virtually every area of your life. We live in an era of information abundance and overload. Never has it been so easy to create and access information, regardless of whether it’s accurate.

As our information landscape continues to evolve, so does the demand to adapt. News literacy education can support and maintain a thriving, inclusive and functional American democracy by helping people of all ages build the necessary skills to detect and resist misinformation. By doing so, we will move toward a future in which the health, safety and well-being of all people are valued and upheld. Now that’s worth sharing to the group chat.

This piece was republished from The Dallas Morning News.

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