It’s not a Facebook problem – investing in media literacy is the answer
As concern grows about the influence social media can have on democracy, it will be tempting for lawmakers to want to regulate platforms like Facebook.
This state of mind, however, is short-sighted. Instead, lawmakers need to address the underlying problem facing our country – our schools need media literacy, especially when it comes to social media.
Facebook first felt pressure for allowing the spread of fake news. Now he is feeling the pressure after it was revealed he allowed Russian-created propaganda ads to spread in the Kremlin’s bid to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
Facebook is now looking to make significant structural changes to the way the company operates. Indeed, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has surely calculated, if he doesn’t make monumental changes quickly, Congress could do it for him.
The problem of democracy
While the debate over regulating tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter should be going on, acting as if regulation will eliminate the real problem is misleading.
If Russian fake news and ads influenced the election, it’s not because the majority of civic-minded, media-savvy citizens were truly duped by the information they received. Let’s call out the real problem here – the country has a major media literacy problem.
Although the numbers have fluctuated slightly, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 45% of the country had “virtually no” trust in the news media.
It is therefore not surprising that two Yale professors published a study who showed that “the link between analytical thinking and discerning truth in the media was driven by both a negative correlation between the cognitive reflection test and perceptions of the accuracy of fake news (particularly among hillary clintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security—Presented by AM General—Preparing for Zelensky’s Big Speech The White House Mocks Russian Sanctions Hillary Clinton Thanks Russia for Sanctions Lifetime Achievement Award MORE supporters), and a positive correlation between the cognitive reflection test and perceptions of the actual accuracy of news (particularly among donald trumpDonald TrumpNevada County Plans To Count All Ballots By Hand Omarosa Gets Penalty K For Failing To Disclose Financial Disclosure supporters).”
In other words, those who believe less in monitoring quality news sources and critically thinking about the information they gather were more likely to believe in fake news.
It’s not a Facebook problem. No amount of regulation will solve the problem that almost half of the country cannot think analytically about the information they process. It’s a problem of lack of education, and the data tells us it’s only going to get worse.
Invest in media literacy
After a study Stanford researchers assessed students’ ability to evaluate sources of information, researchers described the results as “appalling”, “grim” and “[a] threat to democracy. It wasn’t just the young students either; many high school students couldn’t tell the difference between a real and a fake news source on Facebook.
And with states spending less on education and putting more emphasis on standardized testing, why should we expect it to get any better? In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As technology advances, there will be even more ways to manipulate information.
In 2016, Adobe announced the development of a new program called Voco. Designed for the masses, with this software, a person can manipulate an individual’s voice recordings, which means you won’t be able to trust your own ear. Video alterations of this magnitude aren’t far off either.
Education not regulation
If lawmakers are serious about protecting democracy, they must ensure that schools have the financial and human resources necessary to properly teach media literacy to our young people.
Of course, regulation seems cheaper, doesn’t it? After all, more resources for teaching media literacy often means more tax dollars.
But if we don’t tackle this problem now, it will seep into every aspect of our precious American way of life. From politics to economics to national security, nothing will be immune to the negative effects of disinformation. And when the media literacy problem becomes massive enough, no amount of regulation can fix it.
As Thomas Jefferson said, “A well-informed population is the best defense against tyranny.”
In other words, investing in media literacy is the price we should all be willing to pay for the next generation.
Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative assistant at the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and as a public relations practitioner. You can find him on Twitter: @AdamChiara.