Did you know that in 2017, in a study of 1500 Americans, only 10% of those surveyed were able to discern between real news stories and fabricated stories? By 2030, says the WHO, that fake news sources may actually outnumber vetted sources.
Alarmed? Well, that may not be completely unfounded, but the above statistics are all completely fabricated. Yup. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t realize this straight away!
It truly is becoming harder and harder to critically evaluate media sources. You can’t really tell a legitimate piece of news from a manufactured one.
It’s only when you have whetted your critical faculties, do you become skilled enough to spot red flags. However tedious, this is the only way to improve your media literacy.
First off, what is media literacy?
According to Common Sense Media, media literacy is, “the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending.”
Due to the proliferation of manipulated media, and its offshoots – fake news, memes, phony sites and deepfakes, the world is replete with misinformation. A media-illiterate person today is as good as an innumerate who can’t calculate.
Unless you possess the ability to search and filter information, you risk walking into well-laid traps. In other words, you need to know which piece of information to trust and which one to ignore.
Our inability to decipher the sources we consume can have real consequences. Nowhere else does it manifest more than on social media.
Social platforms stoke misinformation and help spread it like wildfire. Today, falling for misinformation on the Internet is a matter of life and death.
For a quick example, the Toronto newspaper, The Toronto Sun, carried a story a while ago. One of its reporters wrote about Syrian refugees living in a Toronto hotel.
The story said that the refugees were destroying the hotel, and even slaughtering goats in the public bathrooms. The story was picked up and shared all over the world.
And the reporter’s source?
Trip Advisor, a website where anyone can post reviews about businesses.
Later it was found that many of the toxic reviews targeted at the asylum-seekers came from people who had never stayed at the hotel. But the damage had been done. The story resulted in a major public outrage.
People believing the stories to be true attempted to set ablaze the floors of the hotel where the refugees were staying.
In addition to the attempted arson of a Toronto hotel, there’s also the now-infamous “Pizzagate” story.
This story claimed that several American Democrats, including then-Democratic Presidential Candidate, Hilary Clinton, was running a child trafficking ring below a pizza restaurant in D.C.
This story spread around sites like 4Chan. Inadvertently, it encouraged a gunman from North Carolina to bring an assault rifle into the restaurant.
This man threatened to use violence unless the children were released from the basement. The restaurant also received several death threats.
The pizza restaurant in question, however, did not have a basement. And even after the FBI and other organizations provided proof that this story was just a conspiracy theory, the story continued to spread and is believed to have played a role in the 2016 American election.
In India, fake news distributed on WhatsApp has resulted in spates of violence in the last few years. On Wikipedia, sadly, there is a separate page dedicated to India WhatsApp lynchings.
So we know that fake news can lead to real harm. It can make innocent people the undeserved targets of violence.
But how can it be spotted?
Ways to become Media Literate
The late Italian semiotician Umberto Eco once stated,
“If we want to use the internet or other digital media for teaching, we need to equip students to understand and to critique these media. We cannot regard them simply as neutral means of delivering information.”Umberto Eco
Luckily, many countries in the West are weaving media literacy into the school curriculum. But in Asia and Africa, it is still a far cry. However, the time has come for policy-makers in countries like India to include media literacy in the school curricula.
Interestingly, it’s not only children who fall prey to fake news phenomena. More often than not, it’s the adults who take the bait.
So how do regular people, who might only spend a few minutes reading the news or checking their FB feed, spot the fake news from the real news?
Examine every source with a critical eye.
There aren’t always cut-and-dry rules to media literacy, but there are lots of strategies we can use to best prevent fake news from tricking us.
In my opinion, the best framework to tackle use is the C.R.A.P. test. C.R.A.P. stands for Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose.
Currency refers to how current the piece is. Beware of a much older, stale story that still floats on the Internet. Chances are it could be riddled with errors.
Reliability refers to the source of the story. Are you reading a Facebook post, a WhatsApp forward, or an article in a peer-reviewed academic journal?
Now, this doesn’t mean that everything on Facebook is fake, and everything in an academic paper is 100% correct.
But on the spectrum of trustworthy to untrustworthy, academic sources, which are checked by professional fact-checkers, are probably more dependable than social media posts.
Who wrote the article?
If the author is claiming that a new supplement will cure cancer, and their background is a Bachelor of Arts in History, they might not have the authority to that piece that a medical doctor might.
We can also look at the author’s publication history. Have they been publishing for a long time, or are there no other news stories anywhere on the internet? Have they been caught publishing misinformation in the past? Etc.
What is the purpose of the article? What is the author trying to do with their piece?
If a publication talks about how great the oil industry is for the environment, and Exxon happens to be a major donor to the publication, then it should raise red flags.
I know it takes effort to become better at spotting misinformation. It can be mentally fatiguing, too, but it’s all worth it if you want to overcome media illiteracy.
Additionally, once you have found sources that publish well-researched stories and that pass the C.R.A.P. test, you don’t necessarily need to continue running the test for every single story.
If you’re really short on time, you can also use sites like snopes.com and politifact.com to check sources and stories that seem dubious. In India, you can use Newschecker and/or follow the Twitter handle of the Press Information Bureau (PIB).
Additionally, check to see if stories have been published in other sources, or just this one place you found.
Media criticism is a growing field, and there are online platforms now dedicated specifically to fighting poor journalism standards.
Know that you might make a mistake here and there, but as long as you are reading critically, and actively trying to assess the reliability of your sources, you will develop a critical mind, and improve your media literacy.
If the world is filled with more media literate people, we can stop harmful false information from proliferating.
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