Much will be written about Election 2016. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, one aspect of the election is beyond debate. We all need critical media literacy skills when it comes to consuming news in this social-media-driven information age. When the web was in its infancy, I enjoyed telling students that they had the same information-producing capacity as the New York Times. Content creation had been democratized! If you have a smart phone, you have the entire world of information at your fingertips — as well as a mass audience. It’s an astounding shift.
This year, I’m not so sure the shift is a positive one. We have more information, true. But our ability to determine what is real, true, meaningful and valid is in question.
There are several reasons for this. The sheer amount of information makes sifting through for authenticity time consuming and difficult. Many tools exist that can make online information look just as “newsy” as something from CNN or the Washington Post. And our own personal biases make believing and sharing information tempting and likely, regardless of the information’s authenticity.
With a majority of Americans getting their news from social media sites, it behooves us to recognize that in many cases our social media circles may simply be echo chambers. We tend to congregate with those who think, believe and vote like we do. These echo chambers are perfect breeding grounds for false information and affirmation bias. Instead of researching information that affirms our already-held beliefs, we share and retweet it as fact.
Traditional “news” is no help, either. With hundreds of news choices before us, we can selectively choose the sources that don’t challenge our already-held assumptions about the world. Many suggest the news is “biased”, and I would agree. But their bias is not ideological. It is commercial.
Since our news sources are typically arms of profit-based, privately-held corporations, they give us what we want rather than what we need. Their bias is toward whatever will keep us viewing, listening and clicking. Neil Postman wrote in 1985 that we were the “least-informed, most-entertained society on earth”.
A recent study from Stanford suggests that students cannot distinguish between legitimate news and so-called “fake news”. And this man suggests that Donald Trump is in the White House because of fake news stories he generated that went viral on Facebook. What is the solution?
Thankfully, Webster University has long been a national leader in the field of media literacy, which is the evaluation and analysis of media messages. We cannot change the senders of messages, and we cannot change the messages themselves. We can, however, educate the receivers of messages to be critical, skeptical consumers of information.
We must consistently ask ourselves these questions: Who is the source of this message? What is their motive or intent? How has the message been constructed? How might someone else interpret this message?
Habitually questioning media messages needs to be considered a 21st Century survival skill. Our democracy depends on it.