Media literacy

Reality Check: Using media literacy to fend off fake news | april | 2020 | Writing

Dolphins frolicking in the once dark and crowded canals of Venice? The unexpected note of joy from a city emptied of tourists by the coronavirus pandemic seemed almost too good to be true.

Alas, it was.

The images of the playful visitors – a blissful view of nature reasserting itself in a suddenly calmed modern world – have been widely shared, discussed and even celebrated on popular social media sites such as Twitter, even after professional journalists from National geographic magazine reported that, no, this new urban legend was nothing more than that. Like so many bogus stories, the Posts of Venice took a small slice of truth – the Italian city’s canals are indeed much cleaner without gondolas stirring up sediment – and went wild, using photos of dolphins that were actually taken away in the Mediterranean port city of Sardinia.

Americans have been very concerned about fake news since the 2016 presidential election and, according to a June 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, consider its proliferation a bigger problem than racism, climate change or terrorism. But in recent months, the concept of “viral misinformation” has posed a whole new level of risk. The false rumor of the dolphins may have been relatively harmless, but as COVID-19 continues to jump from country to country, understanding what information about the pandemic is real and what is false information has become a matter of life or death. For example, less savvy netizens might have overlooked advice from Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who believed he was part of a coup against President Donald Trump (he doesn’t is not). Others could have joined a national quarantine supposedly initiated by the World Health Organization and the White House National Security Council (this was not the case). And, as the Pew investigation suggests, many others may have simply concluded that all news is now suspect.

CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES Literat and Chang warn of the combination of an anxious nation inundated with information that often targets its fears. (Photos: TC Archives)

“This is a time of extraordinary uncertainty, where people are fearful and feel deep anxiety, and they will be looking for information that will put them at ease,” says Ioana Literat, assistant professor in the Communication, Media and Learning Technologies program. Design at Teachers College. “Now they’re looking for information they think they can use – and unfortunately a lot of that information is wrong.”

But the good news is that thanks to Literat and others, the academic field known as media education is receding. Long before the first sketchy reports of a deadly new virus began filtering out of Wuhan, China, Literat and some of his fellow faculty and students at Teachers College were pondering the problem of digital misinformation. She and her collaborator, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, assistant professor of communication and journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have published their research on how young people express themselves politically in their online communities often hidden from adults.

This is a time of extraordinary uncertainty, where people are fearful and feel deep anxiety, and they will be looking for information that will put them at ease… Unfortunately, a lot of this news is fake.

— Ioana Literat

Meanwhile, Literat has also heightened its focus on disinformation.

She and a team from TC’s Media & Social Change Lab (MASCLab) College are about to start disseminating more widely the educational project they’ve been developing for about three years: LAMBOOZLED!, a card game that aims to facilitate the media literacy fun for middle school and high school students, challenging them to investigate the truth of stories about a fictional town of sheep. [LAMBOOZLED! will be published this coming fall by Teachers College Press. See the accompanying story]

Yoo Kyung Chang, lecturer in communication, media and design of learning technologies and key member of LAMBOOZLED! team, says surveys since the start of the coronavirus crisis show that readers are looking for reliable information more than ever, but still don’t always know the best way to find it. The problem in 2020, says Chang, is a “flood” of information so overwhelming that consumers need to ask themselves “what information do you take and trust and rely on?”

Dr. Anthony Fauci (Picture: NIAID)

IT DOESN’T HURT Fauci was not, as some stories claimed, plotting to overthrow President Trump (Picture: NIAID)

In many ways, timing for the LAMBOOZLED! project could not have been better. The size, ubiquity and speed of online communications have ended the monopoly of the most trusted mainstream sources of information, such as network television news or the New York Times and opened the floodgates to disguised advertising, political propaganda and outright counterfeiting. The consumer information industry is in economic freefall. Meanwhile, Photoshop and other technologies have made it possible to heal images beyond detection. It is therefore not surprising that young people – and often also the elderly – are not well prepared to distinguish between fiction and fiction.

For example, a 2017 survey by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, which surveyed 7,800 students at all levels, found that 82% of college students couldn’t tell the difference between a real story and a sponsored one. More than 30% of high school students believed that a fake news claiming to be from Fox News was more reliable than a real Fox News story.

As Literat can personally attest, one of the benefits of dark times like the present is that they can quickly turn people into wiser media critics.

A Romanian native whose family watched the revolution that toppled longtime dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu when she was young, Literat says she grew up with a deep appreciation for truthful journalism and civic engagement. She came to North America to study at United World College on Vancouver Island, Canada, and stayed to earn a degree from Middlebury College in film studies. But while many of her classmates turned to Hollywood, she says, “I was a little different — I was more interested in how media can be used for positive social change.”

The problem in 2020 is a “flood” of information so overwhelming that consumers have to ask themselves “what information do you take and trust and rely on?”

—Yoo Kyung Chang

Since joining Teachers College and MASCLab, Literat has focused on understanding how politics seeps into online worlds that primarily appeal to teenagers — places like the Fortnite video game, as well as meme creation sites or platforms where young people post fanfiction. Not one to hide her own political leanings, she says her job became even more urgent the night Trump became president — “How can I help get us out of this mess?” she recalls wondering – amid a growing sense that a blizzard of misinformation had swung the election.

Literat’s previous research had shown that young people were beginning to obtain political information from unconventional online sites not monitored by adults. Many teenagers shared “the feeling that I am not an active news maker, that the information is not relevant to me”. Develop a game such as LAMBOOZLED! seemed like a fun way to get young news consumers thinking about accuracy and trust in news, instead of discouraging them with a didactic lecture.

Jonathan Gardner, TC master student in the Digital Game Design and Development program, who worked on LAMBOOZLED! considers that the 2016 elections and the wave of false stories that surrounded them constituted “a wake-up call”.

Literat is more skeptical. But with the global pandemic altering life in America, “news — and local news — is very relevant,” she says. “I think young people see that.”

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