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Opinion: Time to prioritize media literacy online

Truth Be Told

Posted online

Less than 45 days out from the presidential election and six months into a global health pandemic, the spread of disinformation online is pervasive. And with our democracy and health on the line, it’s high time we take media literacy seriously.

Facebook and other social media platforms have started to allow users to report misleading or false news to platform moderators for review. I use these tools often, and to my surprise, I haven’t only flagged false posts shared by just Aunt Betty-types (you know what I mean), but also posts from educated friends I respect. We’re all susceptible to being duped online.

In these times, the right information can mean the difference between life and death. MIT Technology Review reports that pages spreading health misinformation were viewed 3.8 billion times on Facebook this year through May. These fake sites received almost four times as many views on Facebook as content from reliable sources, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimates at least 800 people may have died as a result of misinformation surrounding COVID-19.

Some of the most-viewed and shared news stories of 2019, according to a study by nonprofit Avaaz, were political. They included posts that claimed President Donald Trump’s grandfather was a pimp, tax evader and member of the Ku Klux Klan and that Speaker Nancy Pelosi diverted Social Security funds for the impeachment inquiry. The study estimated that last year the top 100 fake news stories on Facebook were viewed over 150 million times. These types of posts are often fueled by confirmation bias, but it shouldn’t be that way. It’s time for critical thinking to become mainstream.

Facebook, in particular, is under the microscope for many of its practices and policies, including its seeming inability to squash fake news. Facebook officials say its flagging tools help the community of Facebook users make it easier for moderators to spot fake news, and advertising policies have changed to ensure people didn’t profit from such content.

Facebook recently put a “false information” label on a post from Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which featured an interview with a Chinese virologist making false claims about COVID-19. And in May, Twitter flagged a tweet from Trump about mail-in ballots with a fact-check warning. That was the first time the social network put a check on the president’s social media, but it was not the last.

So while tech leaders are working on bettering their practices, what role do you and I play in rooting out false narratives? After all, bots aside, fake news doesn’t spread unless we share it.

There are many online resources devoted to this. One from the Poynter Institute, MediaWise, launched in 2018 to educate Gen Z and first-time voters on media literacy. It now has a MediaWise for Seniors initiative. The data tell us that is an important demographic to target.

A study of Twitter during the 2016 presidential election by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found most false news distributed on the social media site was shared by those who are conservative leaning, older and highly engaged with political news. And another study by the AAAS found users over age 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles on Facebook from fake news domains as the youngest age group.

So, let’s fix this. Perhaps surprisingly, these tips below for spotting fake news come from Facebook. This summer, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a study saying the following 10 tips improved discernment between mainstream and false news headlines of people in the United States by 26.5%.

1. Be skeptical of headlines. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.

2. Look closely at the link. A phony or look-alike link may be a warning sign of false news.

3. Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy.

4. Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts.

5. Consider the photos. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.

6. Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense.

7. Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate.

8. Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false.

9. Is the story a joke? Check whether the source is known for parody.

10. Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories you read.

Next time you go on social media, join me in considering these tips and let’s protect our health and democracy by elevating fact over fiction.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor 
Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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