The Philadelphia Inquirer
While the internet has increased access to information and has often been a force for good, it has also contributed to making many people misinformed, uninformed and even radicalized.
That’s why it is welcome news to see New Jersey become the first state in the country to require schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students. Other states should follow the Garden State’s lead.
Students raised on mobile phones have a world of information — and disinformation — at their fingertips. Studies show many teens get their news from TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, barely regulated spaces where most anything goes. That is all the more reason why it’s essential for schools to teach students how to discern fact from fiction.
Researchers at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found that 96% of high school students surveyed failed to see how a website’s ties to fossil fuel companies could affect its credibility on information regarding climate change. Two-thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and advertising, even if it was labeled as “sponsored content.” And 52% of students believed a grainy video on Facebook claiming to capture ballot stuffing constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud.
Sadly, many adults given the same survey may not fare much better.
Alexander Pope, the 18th-century poet and satirist, famously wrote that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” That danger turned all too real when an angry mob of Donald Trump supporters staged a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, fueled by misinformation that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
For months, Trump and his allies promoted the “Big Lie” about election fraud. Two years later, the spread of misinformation remains a threat to democracy here and abroad.
It is not just political misinformation that is dumbing down America. The pandemic fueled a range of conspiracies and an assault on science. Much of the misinformation was spread through social media and “news” outlets that put profits above the truth.
The result was a separate pandemic of misinformation, which cost lives and money. One study found falsehoods surrounding COVID-19 vaccines contributed to one-third of U.S. pandemic deaths, while another study put the cost between $50 million and $300 million each day.
Much of the bogus information is spread through social media and conservative news outlets. Many people claim they “do their own research.” But just because something is on the internet doesn’t make it real.
The fire hose of information distributed on social media is especially pernicious. One study found fake news spreads faster on Twitter than real news. The same goes for Facebook, where a study found misinformation received six times more engagement than factual news.
The spread of misleading information has also increased political polarization and reduced trust in institutions such as the courts, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Adding to the polarization and spread of falsehoods are reckless sites such as Infowars. A jury recently ordered founder Alex Jones to pay $473 million for promoting conspiracy theories surrounding the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a rare case of accountability — one which came a decade and countless fabricated stories later.
But it’s not just fringe sites that are the problem. One study found that watching Fox News — the top-rated cable news network — resulted in decreased knowledge about science and society. Exhibit A is host Tucker Carlson, who repeatedly promotes misinformation about the pandemic along with a long list of other bogus claims.
The peril goes way beyond any political divide. Society can’t function well, or tackle critical issues such as climate change, when half the public is armed with facts and the other half traffics in lies and conspiracies.
It’s troubling enough when a small percentage of the population wrongly believes the moon landing was staged. But it is a whole other level of danger when 147 members of Congress vote to overturn the 2020 election. Or when lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene promote off-the-wall conspiracies from QAnon, a group that believes the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
A well-informed public is key to a functioning democracy and a civil society. Teaching media literacy is one way to not only inoculate future generations from falling for misinformation but to also help solve the problems left behind by today’s leaders.