To fight disinformation on digital platforms, teach media literacy in schools
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The recent testimony of the Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen in the US Senate did not reveal much information that most observers of the current disinformation crisis did not already suspect. Instead, his testimony underscored the depth of the disinformation crisis that Facebook has helped accelerate. His testimony was remarkable for its specificity and clarity in describing the problem and calling for action.
It remains to be seen whether political leaders who have been slow to understand the problem will pick up the torch and come up with regulations to deal with the disinformation crisis. With many American counties to announce medical misinformation a public health crisis due to the increase in deaths from COVID and misinformation about electoral fraud leading to the January 6 coup attempt, the stakes could not be higher.
One step towards solving this problem is to introduce media literacy skills as a mandatory addition to school curricula. This would allow the next generation to be better consumers of information. People familiar with the media can better decode the media messages they receive, apply critical thinking, and discern the difference between real journalism and propaganda.
Over the past two decades, the traditional model of news media has fractured and digital platforms increasingly occupy a significant share of the media market. These include more traditional news formats, but also memes, viral videos, and social media posts. Young people are increasingly absorbing information on these platforms. Increasing their media literacy would allow them to engage more securely with the information they interact with and to think critically about the source of the information. It would also train them to decipher between journalism, opinion, sponsored content and propaganda.
Media literacy skills are the essential complement to social studies in the digital age. Like Thomas Jefferson noted, “An educated citizenship is an essential condition for our survival as a free people.” We know from our lived experience that disinformation weakens democracy. Politicians can use disinformation as a weapon to stoke resentment and bogus culture wars while eroding societal norms.
Facebook insiders have sounded the alarm saying that the company puts profits before people. Some have argued that the onus to discern disinformation lies with the users of these platforms. They say social media platforms simply provide a platform for the free exchange of ideas, according to the argument. This argument ignores the role these platforms play in amplifying harmful content.
Facebook’s algorithms amplify content designed to elicit strong emotions like outrage, meant to keep users engaged. Users are not well equipped to deal with very sophisticated algorithms designed to trigger their emotions. Media literacy alone will not solve this problem, but it is a crucial step in tackling the crisis.
Digital platforms like Facebook have proven to be reluctant or unable to put in place the appropriate safeguards to moderate the spread of disinformation. Politicians have also shown a lack of political will and fail to introduce regulations to bring about real change. In the face of this inaction, the least we can do as a society is to equip the next generation with the tools and skills to deal with the torrent of disinformation we know they will face.