Building media literacy: avoiding misinformation while online

By Anastasia Bekker

Elm Staff Writer

Misinformation has become a growing problem in the United States. 

According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, nearly 67% of over 10,000 people surveyed have reported that the news sources they feel that they have been “presented…information to favor one side of an issue,” with 56% stating sources have published breaking news with little to no verification and 37% have “reported made-up information intended to mislead the public.” 

There are ways you can build your media literacy — the ability to discern a source’s credibility — to help you distinguish which information is true for yourself. 

“I give three quick tips,” Di Zhang, a librarian at the Seattle Public Library, told Vox News on Sept. 11, 2020. “Number one, read, listen, and watch critically before sharing. Number two, check the source. Number three, check the support.”

Consume critically

Before sharing information with others, be critical of the news you consume on a daily basis. Reading through a source thoroughly is also a good way to avoid circulating false information. 

It’s crucial to apply the same skepticism to humor as you do to news sources — memes and satire can spread misinformation just as effectively as false news articles.

“The meme is probably the most dangerous,” Alan Duke, editor of the fact-checking site Lead Stories told The New York Times on Oct. 14, 2020. “In seven or 20 words, somebody can say something that’s not true, and people will believe it and share it. It takes two minutes to create.”

Misinformation is likely to run rampant on controversial and emotional issues, so exercising a healthy dose of doubt when researching these topics can be helpful.

One of these emotional and relevant issues is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sparked numerous rumors, including whether or not it’s real, if it was manufactured for political reasons, what tactics work when fighting it. Myths that holding your breath can prevent the spread of the disease, or that children can’t get COVID-19, can cause unnecessary danger.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a real dire demonstration of how misinformation has real world and immediate consequences on public health,” Sarah Evanega, director of Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, told National Geographic on Oct. 22, 2020. “It really is a matter of life and death.”

For the most reliable information, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s web page concerning COVID-19 safety.

Check the source

Checking the source of an article — the website that published it, the author, etc. — can be a good indicator of how credible it is. Legitimate publications will give more accurate information with less bias.

Popularized in 2015, the term “fake news” described articles that contained questionable or outright false information. During the 2016 election cycle, research found that these fake news articles were shared more often than legitimate news articles.

According to a 2016 Buzzfeed News analysis, fake news articles were shared on Facebook 8.7 million times, in comparison to the 7.3 million times that mainstream news articles were shared.

Although everyone is susceptible to seeing false information, older users of social media are at a higher risk of being misinformed, according to a The New York Times article from Aug. 22, 2020.

“Misinformation is always heightened when there’s greater confusion. Particularly around [the COVID-19 pandemic], there can be devastating impact if you get the wrong information,” Jean Setzfand, senior vice president of programs at the American Association of Retired Persons, told The New York Times.

Several websites have offered courses online or over Zoom on distinguishing satire, misinformation, and credible sources. Senior Planet and AARP have both hosted courses aimed at seniors on their websites, though they are available for everyone.

AARP’s website has tips on how to avoid being misled online, including information about the COVID-19 pandemic in particular. 

One of the site’s quick tips for checking a website’s legitimacy is to look at the suffix: .gov and .edu sources are most likely reliable, while .org and .com sources will require more of a background check.

Although it takes a bit of skepticism and extra work, verifying your sources will help you steer clear of articles with a lot of bias and misinformation. 

Double check the facts

Sometimes an article’s information isn’t just opinionated or biased — it’s outright false. It’s always a good idea to verify the claims presented, even if it’s from a source you trust.

To check facts and support, Zhang suggests using fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and Snopes to investigate further into information going viral each day.

As far as political news goes, there are a lot of conflicting sources and information being shared. 

For example, former President Donald Trump shared a lot of disputed information before he was banned from Twitter on Jan. 8. To delegitimize his opponent, President Joe Biden, as well as the 2020 election process, Trump spread several theories of voter fraud and suppression. 

According to The Washington Post fact checker, Trump has made over 30,000 false allegations during his presidency.

To prevent the spread of misinformation, Twitter is introducing a new feature called Birdwatch, which will allow users to add their own warnings to information they found questionable, and these warnings would be attached to the post for all users to see.

However, some experts are less optimistic about the effectiveness of crowdsourcing the issue, believing it will not add any credibility to the site.

“It’s sort of just replicating what we see on Twitter,” Madelyn Webb, a researcher fighting misinformation with the nonprofit First Draft, said on National Public Radio on Feb. 10. “Things go viral, everybody wants to talk about them and then the rest of it sort of falls to the wayside.”

It can be difficult to avoid seeing false information when using social media sites, especially when these sites have become diffusers of political news and current events. Having strategies to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones and building your media literacy can help you avoid being misinformed.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, being conscientious of the news that you consume and share not only keeps you aware of what’s going on in the world, but it helps everyone stay safe and healthy.

Featured Photo caption: With nationwide events all around us, from the recent 2020 presidential election to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been a growth of misinformation spreading online — but also an effort to confront this through media literacy. Photo by Rebecca Kanaskie.

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