Op-Ed: Idaho Needs Media Literacy To Fight COVID-19 Misinformation
As Idaho recently announced crisis care standards for hospitals across the state, we are seeing firsthand the effects of myths, misunderstandings and misinformation about COVID-19. In today’s media environment, Idahoans are bombarded from all quarters with conflicting claims about COVID-19, and it can be difficult to disentangle the truths from the lies.
Much like vaccination against a dangerous virus, media literacy – the ability to analyze and evaluate media messages – can help us stay afloat in this sea of misinformation. But to master the media, we all need to know how our media system often prioritizes engagement over accuracy and how it takes advantage of our basic human tendencies to stay true to our own species and avoid thinking efforts.
For most people, working through conflicting information just isn’t much fun and isn’t high on our to-do lists. Making careful judgments requires the painful trade-off of slowing down and investing mental effort. Unfortunately, our brains have evolved to take the easy way out, listen to our intuition, and rely on cognitive shortcuts that are usually “good enough” to guide our decisions.
But these shortcuts also leave us all vulnerable to common mistakes in thinking. Our confirmation bias means we’re more likely to believe new information is true when it matches our pre-existing beliefs.
Studies also show that just being exposed to fake news makes these stories more believable and true. This is particularly problematic because scientists have shown that disinformation often spreads faster and more widely on social media than exact information. As Jonathan Swift once wrote: “A lie flies, and the truth limps to him.”
The online attention economy knows it all. The algorithms that work behind the scenes when you visit sites like Facebook and Google prioritize content that will keep your eyes on the screen and increase the profitability of these giant companies. It’s easy to ignore the well-documented detrimental effects of social media and forget that they are not benign public services.
Your information ecosystem is not neutral.
The algorithms that select what content to display on your screen come to life as they begin to collect data about you and use it to personalize your online experience. In some ways, these algorithms know us better than we do.
It makes it easier than ever for bad actors to manipulate us through catchy propaganda that satisfies our deep desire to be part of a band and rewards our thirst for validation. You can play with algorithms and avoid being misinformed by simply cutting back on your likes and shares, or striving to follow a range of reliable sources, especially ones you might disagree with.
Traditional media are certainly imperfect, but print and digital newspapers and non-commercial public media are still your best bet for reliable news. Organizations like these pay qualified journalists to gather information and verify facts, not to advance a political agenda.
Instead, their goal is to get the closest possible version to the truth and help us understand what’s going on in our society. They follow standard industry codes of ethics and hold themselves accountable when they make a mistake, unlike the purveyors of disinformation who select the information to serve their narrow ideological interests.
Anecdotes about rare cases and rare side effects of vaccines may naturally raise questions, but it’s more important to look at the overall evidence. Informed citizens know that vaccines and masks are the best ways to protect yourself against the virus and help end the pandemic, even if you have already tested positive. “Doing your own research” is fine, but it does not replace the meticulous work of experts who do their best to learn all they can about COVID-19 and update us as their knowledge increases and that situations change.
Find your way to reliable news by asking some basic media literacy questions: Who created this news and why? Who is the target audience for this and am I one of them? Is the information designed to elicit a certain reaction? Does it work? What information is missing and what questions remain unanswered? Does it help meet the information needs of the community or does it seek to promote a selfish partisan agenda?
Above all, just slow down. Avoid making quick judgments based on emotional reactions. If something looks true it could be, but check it to be sure.
Reminding social media users to stop and think about the accuracy of a piece of information makes them less likely to share misinformation online. Always be skeptical, not just with the information you don’t like. Don’t repeat or amplify misinformation by sharing it. Instead, share factual information from trusted sources.
You can also encourage others to practice the same good information hygiene practices. If friends and family are struggling, listen empathetically to their concerns and ask open-ended questions to help them see if they are being misled.
We must all remember that disinformation can cost lives and perpetuate major social disruption, but by working together we can fight disinformation and help end this pandemic.
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Seth Ashley is a professor of journalism and media studies in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, where he is also an educational advisor for student media. He is the author of News Literacy and Democracy, and his research focuses on media education, media sociology and communication policies. He got his doctorate. and MA from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a designer and technician for film, theater and music productions.
Brian Stone is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Boise State University. He obtained a master’s degree in neuroscience and behavior and a doctorate. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. He specializes in cognitive psychology, including the perception, learning, and study of how people process information. Brian grew up in the Pacific Northwest and in his spare time enjoys hiking, swimming, camping, and paddleboarding in Idaho’s beautiful outdoor spaces.