The BUST Guide to Media Literacy
Now, more than ever, it is important not to believe everything you read (and watch, and listen to, and scroll through). But how do you know what’s real—and what’s a carefully crafted lie?
IT WAS 2015 when it likely first popped up in your Facebook feed: an old interview with Donald Trump. “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country,” Trump was quoted as saying in a 1998 People Magazine article. Maybe, like many others eager to give this gotcha moment more traction, you hit the “share” button and posted it to your own feed. If so, you fell for a media hoax.
Snopes, the Internet fact-checking site, debunked that quote early on, but it made the rounds nonetheless, largely shared by liberal voters. And it’s just one of the many false conspiracy theories that ricocheted across the web during the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. You know, fake news.
This may surprise you, but liberals are just as susceptible as right-wingers when it comes to believing and sharing made-up stories. In fact, those on either extreme of the political spectrum are more likely to share false information, according to a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder. And experts believe such misleading stories may have had a real impact on the selection of the person now occupying the White House. For example, a 2018 Ohio State University study estimated that four percent of President Barack Obama’s 2012 supporters were influenced enough by false stories to switch their votes from Clinton to Trump.
And now, in the months ramping up to November 3, it’s happening again. Take the Plandemic rumor. Earlier this year, a so-called “documentary” about the origins of COVID-19 spread online like its own virus of disinformation. While numerous experts, including academic journals such as Science magazine, have debunked Plandemic’s claims (no, Bill Gates didn’t mastermind the virus) it still remains popular—among both conservatives and liberals.
Even that old Trump article is making a comeback. According to Reuters Fact Check, the inaccurate quote about “dumb” Republicans has resurfaced—although this time around, Facebook usually accompanies the article with a disclaimer.
But let’s get real; no matter how smart or politically liberal, we’re all susceptible to being misled. Maybe it’s your parents sharing inaccurate articles on Facebook, or your best friend who retweeted a “deepfake”—a digitally manipulated image or video meant to impersonate or misrepresent a real person. You might even be part of the problem. That article you posted—did you actually read it? Oops.
With the election looming, there has never been a more urgent need for sharpened media literacy—defined as the ability to critically analyze and evaluate content, images, and stories. Read on for some election-ready tips.
THE AGE OF DISINFORMATION
According to activist Erin McNeill, president and founder of Media Literacy Now, we must consider the impact media messages have on making important choices—be they voting in an election or deciding to wear a mask. “Media literacy is an important part of participating in a democracy,” McNeill says. And it’s especially critical when we consider how we interact with one another in the digital realm. Before the Internet, most mass media, including news, was filtered through so-called “gatekeepers”—those with the power to control what information is amplified and distributed—with the agenda to make a profit. Now we are gatekeepers, too, and all those posts, likes, and comments can have a huge impact on public discourse.
With media available at our literal fingertips 24/7, understanding what’s true, what’s partially true, and what’s outright false is important. Which brings us to “fake news.” The phrase generally refers to made-up information, such as the “Pizzagate” hoax, which falsely claimed that the personal emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair, contained coded messages about human trafficking rings based out of various restaurants.
Clearly, Pizzagate is fake news, but it’s not what President Donald Trump means when he tweets the phrase. Instead, he typically aims the jab at any unflattering news story about him, which is why some media experts say the phrase is worth striking from our collective vocabulary. “[People] often use it as a way to attack the mainstream media, so it shouldn’t be interchangeable with false or fabricated information,” says Dr. Katie Foss, a professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University.
So, what should we call made-up stories instead? There are two terms you’ve probably heard: “misinformation” and “disinformation.” Misinformation is something unintentionally false or inaccurate that’s broadcast or published—and usually corrected when called out. Disinformation, on the other hand, is shared deliberately and rarely amended. Disinformation may also look very real, nearly indiscernible from mainstream news articles, broadcast clips, ads, or social media posts. And once it’s seeded on the Internet, well, good luck righting any factual wrongs.
Worse, disinformation often contains one or two provable facts which then get skewed. Plandemic exemplified this, pushing a narrative that Bill Gates has a patent on the coronavirus vaccine. It’s true that Gates, as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funds the Pirbright Institute, which researches vaccines, including for coronaviruses. But what they left out was that the patent in questions is for certain chicken coronavirus vaccines, not the inoculation for COVID-19.
VETTING THE NEWS
It’s vital to question and vet the stories we consume. Some key questions to ask include:
- What outlet reported on and published the story?
- What sources were quoted?
- How accurate are this story’s facts?
- What was left out?
There are relatively easy ways to get to all of these answers. Poynter’s News University, an affiliate of the non-partisan Poynter Institute, offers key tips. First, identify the source of the information you are reading, watching, or hearing. Is it an outlet you’re familiar with? Are its origins clear? For example, are you reading a story in a national outlet? Or was it published on a lesser-known blog or in a Facebook group?
Once the source has been determined, consider its expertise, trustworthiness, and personal biases. All of these factors can have a major impact on how a source’s information is framed. Also, see if you can confirm their information elsewhere—be it through other sources, government documents, or public data.
It’s also critical to establish how transparent the reporting is in a piece. Can you tell who the reporter’s sources are? If it’s not easy to verify the basic facts of the story, beware. And, this might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t forget to check the date. Is it recent? You’ll want to verify this before you inadvertently—yikes—share old news.
Finally, examine what’s missing. Who wasn’t interviewed or represented—and why?
It may sound like a lot of work, but you don’t have to be a news scholar to get good at vetting. Even if a story is a major scoop, if the information is reliable, other major outlets will rush to report their own versions. You should be able to easily find and compare the content in question to similar stories from other reputable sources.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU SEE
You’re questioning sources and double-checking against other media outlets. Good. But what about those “deepfakes” and their counterparts, “shallowfakes”?
Deepfakes are videos altered via artificial intelligence. In contrast, shallowfakes are videos presented out of context or edited using basic software.
While many are laughably crude (that deepfake of Steve Buscemi’s face super-imposed on Jennifer Lawrence’s body isn’t fooling anyone), increasingly, they are cause for worry, according to experts such as Tim Weninger, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame. “When you see an image for the first time, it makes an indelible mark, you form your opinion quickly, this is the law of first impressions,” Weninger says. “Once you have that in your mind, it’s hard for your mind to undo it. The damage has been done.”
You may not be tricked by a shallowfake that’s been digitally altered to make it appear as if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is drunkenly slurring her words (a video that Facebook refused to delete, by the way), but the impression will linger.
And as technology improves and manipulated videos and images become less easy to detect, more serious problems can emerge. In June, for example, Trump tweeted an altered version of a popular viral video. In the original clip, two children—one white, one Black—run toward each other and embrace. In Trump’s version, however, the video is manipulated to show the Black child fleeing the white child. Set to ominous music, the clip includes a false CNN headline: “Terrified toddler runs from racist baby.” Twitter, as part of a new policy on labeling misinformation and manipulated media, hid the original post behind a warning: “The president shared a version of the video which many journalists confirmed was edited and doctored with a fake CNN chyron.”
So how can you tell if something has been manipulated? While artificial intelligence experts are racing to develop better and faster ways to identify these altered images, sometimes you just need to use your common sense—and your eyes and ears. Does it look or sound strange? Can you verify its authenticity via mainstream news outlets or other reputable sources?
This leads us to some of the most potent media literacy resources every savvy news consumer should have in her toolkit.
“Once you have an image in your mind, it’s hard for your mind to undo it. the damage has been done.”
Still not sure about that video, meme, or article? Before you share it, there are numerous fact-checking organizations that can do the heavy lifting for you. In addition to Snopes.com, which bills itself as the “Internet’s definitive fact-checking resource,” check out nonpartisan options such as PolitiFact.com, which rates candidate claims with a “Truth-O-Meter” scorecard, and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
As a rule, it’s wise to fact check anything you feel inclined to post. Here’s a good lesson on why this is important: In 2018, many social media users shared photos showing children in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. “Speechless. This is not who we are as a nation,” tweeted former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat.
The images were outrageous, yes, but they were taken under former president Barack Obama’s watch—not Trump’s—and published in a June 2014 online package from The Arizona Republic with the headline, “First peek: Immigrant children flood detention center.”
FORTIFY YOUR FOUNDATION
In May 2016, two months before the Democratic National Convention, many ardent Bernie Sanders supporters angrily took to Facebook to share an article from U.S. Uncut, an online news organization. The article, which depicted images from a packed Sanders rally in Sacramento, CA, claimed that these were scenes that the “mainstream media” refused to air or publish. It was proof, the news outlet wrote, that the establishment was trying to suppress Sanders’ progressive message.
Except that the mainstream media did report on the rally. The local daily paper published a story—and a big photo—on its front page, and the NPR affiliate aired interviews from the scene, as did every TV station in town. If those who shared the story on Facebook had stopped to learn more about U.S. Uncut, they may have realized that the now defunct outlet was widely considered a hyper-partisan liberal site notorious for publishing inaccurate stories.
In short, it was junk news.
Remember the nutrition guidelines taught in elementary school? Posters used a pyramid to illustrate the benefits of eating a foundation of fruits and vegetables, followed by whole grains, etc., all the way up to its tip of “junk” foods heavy in fats and sugars. Think of your media consumption the same way: You need a solid base of legitimate, relatively unbiased sources. It’s OK to consume junk media sometimes—gossip magazines, political speculation, Facebook—but in sparing doses.
It can be difficult, however, to keep up with what’s rubbish and what’s not. Put off by untrustworthy news articles she saw circulating on Facebook before the 2016 election, patent lawyer Vanessa Otero created her own “Media Bias Chart” ranking news sources on a scale that moves from “Most Extreme Left” to “Hyper Partisan Left” to “Skews Left” to “Neutral” to “Skews Right” to “Hyper Partisan Right” to “Most Extreme Right.” She shared her chart on Facebook before the 2016 election and it went viral, inspiring her new full-time project, AdFontesMedia.com.
Although Otero’s site can’t possibly evaluate every media source, the chart is a good resource for gauging credible sources. Outlets such as the Associated Press, PBS, and Reuters are firmly squared in the chart’s central grid, while CNN lands somewhat to the left and Fox News is positioned to the right. Meanwhile, outliers such as Breitbart and The Blaze fall to the extreme right on the “unreliable” section of the chart, while Wonkette, DailyKos, and the Palmer Report occupy the same untrustworthy spaces on the left.
All news is subject to bias, of course. “We can’t ever be 100 percent sure, we can’t fact-check everything presented to us by every journalist,” Otero says. “It’s not as simple as ‘this is the truth, and this is the lie.’” Instead, her team produces a new chart every month and a team of three analysts evaluates each piece of content using a series of reliability factors that include original reporting, complex analysis, veracity, and bias.
The latter, Otero says, can take many forms. “Bias isn’t just advocating for a political position,” she says. “It’s language that characterizes your political opponents and a political position, [such as] ‘pro-choice’ versus ‘pro-life’ or calling Hillary Clinton ‘senile’ or ‘deranged.’’’
To that end, most outlets engage in “framing” and “agenda setting.” Agenda setting refers to how an outlet gives importance to a subject by deciding to report on it in the first place. Framing, on the other hand, is how an outlet reports on a subject, from what sources are contacted to what words are used.
Headlines and graphics can tell a story through a particular lens, too. Take, for example, two very different takes on President Trump’s first post-quarantine rally in Tulsa, OK. Fox’s version framed the issue of the rally’s relatively poor attendance this way: “Trump camp rejects claims of rally-ticket sabotage online.”
CNN took a decidedly different approach: “Trump’s campaign was trolled by TikTok users in Tulsa.”
Which headline would you click? Whatever your answer, it’s time to talk about confirmation bias.
“Bias isn’t just advocating for a political position, It’s language that characterizes your political opponents and a political position, [such as] ‘pro-choice’ versus ‘pro-life.’”
THINK OUTSIDE YOUR BIAS
If you’re human, chances are good you’ve fallen prey to confirmation bias, which is the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, while giving disproportionately less consideration to other possibilities or information.
A 2019 Scientific American study, “You Are Fake News,” showed that liberals and conservatives are equally susceptible to sharing false information—as long as it aligns with their own preconceptions. “Both sides of the traditional left-right divide are equally likely to believe political news that is consistent with their ideology, and to disbelieve news that is inconsistent with their side,” the study posited, adding that, “people infer news legitimacy in a way that appears motivated by their own ideological positioning.”
Media literacy means pushing beyond this echo chamber of our own preconceived ideas and beliefs. The Media Bias Chart makes for a good starting point. Challenge yourself to read articles or watch segments on the same subject from a variety of sources spread across the chart’s “reliable” spectrum. This is called “lateral reading,” and a 2017 Stanford University study, “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information,” concluded that reading articles from a range of sources is a useful way to identify credible sources amid an onslaught of “misinformation, fake news, and rank propaganda.” Otero agrees. “Lateral reading is the number-one thing that people can do to help differentiate what’s likely true or false,” she says.
Likewise, determine if you are reading and watching across a range of viewpoints, including outlets that employ women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks. For help with that, the American Society of News Editors publishes an annual Newsroom Diversity Survey (find the latest one at newsleaders.org/2019-diversity-survey-results) that breaks down newsroom demographics among race, gender, and sexual identity.
One of the biggest pieces of advice that many experts dispense is perhaps the easiest: Think before you post. “Pause before you share something, especially if it inflames your passions,” says Otero. “If you read something and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe the other side did this!’ [there is] a much higher likelihood that you might be missing something.”
But what about when you see your contacts spreading misinformation or disinformation on your feed? “Don’t attack the source,” says Otero. “[Instead], break down the article and its facts. Be respectful to people with whom you disagree.”
Disinformation is persuasive because it’s often rooted in reality. Remember Bill Gates and the chicken coronavirus example? By calmly analyzing and explaining the basis of such disinformation, you may be able to better engage with others, regardless of political viewpoints.
It’s also important to hold yourself accountable. Did you read beyond the headline? Take the time to read—or at the very least skim—anything you post on your feeds. People who know and respect you will assume you’ve read what you’ve shared, and you don’t want your peers to view you as just another unreliable source of information.
Media has evolved dramatically over the last 100 years—and so has our definition of media literacy. In the ’60s, for example, there were only three major TV networks. Since then, cable exploded on the scene, followed by a vast universe of online outlets. Our habits and media literacy need to evolve alongside these new technologies, and some evolve faster than others. Remember that the next time you start to get pulled into an argument with older folks.
“We’ve all had to sharpen our media literacy,” Otero says about the intergenerational divide.
“It may feel hopeless, but it’s getting better.”
By Rachel Leibrock
Illustrated by Taylor McManus
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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