Media Literacy Tactics For The Disinformation Era
Amid an avalanche of online disinformation, it's important to stay vigilant. Here are some tried and true methods to protect yourself from people seeking to mislead you.
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The Israel-Hamas war has sparked a whirlpool of online disinformation. After writing an article debunking some of the worst viral lies about the war, I thought about writing another one. There are so many false narratives to take on. But I realized I would just be playing a game of disinformation whac-a-mole. These lies are seemingly endless. Instead, I want to offer up some practical tactics you can use to shield yourself from the impact of malicious disinformation.
The problem of disinformation and online radicalization is something I’ve dedicated my career to addressing. In my nonprofit consulting work, I deliver media literacy lectures and run interactive workshops with college and high school students. I created an anti-disinformation toolkit earlier this year with the nonprofit organization Common Power that dives deeper into some of these tactics.
These tactics are based on my nearly a decade of experience writing news content as co-founder of Rantt Media and a columnist at The Independent. We’re not diving too deep in this piece. I know you’re busy. So, I formatted it in a way I hope is digestible.
Virility does not indicate credibility. Here’s how you can discern the truth from the noise, a breakdown of some common disinformation tactics, and how we entered the disinformation age in the first place.
How To Think Like A Juror
“Think Like A Juror” is a framework I developed based on the training jurors undergo before they hear cases. We’re all human, so it’s difficult to turn off our emotions and biases in order to think objectively about issues, especially issues we’re passionate about. Bias has its evolutionary benefits. It can help you anticipate threats based on previous experiences. But it’s not the best lens through which to consume information.
Most disinformation seeks to prey on our implicit and unconscious biases. If we learn to check ourselves, then we can more effectively assess pieces of information for what they are and not what we’re led to believe they are. When in doubt, think like a juror.
Check your own implicit biases and stereotypes: Disinformation exploits confirmation bias. It's important to check our own biases when consuming information to make sure we're not speculating beyond the facts. Ask yourself tough questions and strive to have an open mind.
Don't jump to conclusions: Take the time to discern whether there are enough facts for you to come to an informed conclusion. Just because something appears to be the case doesn't make it so.
Fact-check claims from multiple credible sources: When you see a piece of information you're unsure of, check to see if it's been reported by 2 or more sources with a track record of getting similar stories correct.
Recognize when algorithms are manipulating you: Social media algorithms track your behavior and feed you content they know you'll engage with. Recognizing how these algorithms work will make you less likely to be pushed down rabbit holes.
Once you've discovered the truth, spread it: If you’ve personally debunked a piece of disinformation, share that knowledge with your friends, family, and other social media users.
Step-By-Step Guide To Consuming Information
When you come across a piece of information, following these steps can help you determine fact from fiction:
Identify the source: Know where your information is coming from. Is it a reputable source or a journalist affiliated with a credible organization? Do they have a track record of getting these stories right? If it’s an account on X, check the date of the verified badge to see if it was purchased after Elon Musk took over or if it is a legacy blue check that was earned.
Analyze the intent of the source: What is the motive behind the information? Is it to inform, persuade, or deceive? Is it a politician, and if so, which party? Is it a random influencer seeking to get attention? How do they monetize? Analyzing the intent of the source can go a long way in deciding whether you can trust them.
Fact-check the info with multiple credible sources: Once you’ve determined the source, ensure the information's authenticity by consulting various trusted sources that you already rely on for information. Legacy news organizations are still the most dependable when it comes to serious news - especially in a war zone. In the fog of war, it’s best to wait and assess before amplifying content.
Check your own biases: Reflect on how your personal beliefs might influence your interpretation of the information. Was your preconceived notion about the info correct?
Reflect on how this info, whether true or false, impacts your worldview: Does the information challenge or reinforce your existing beliefs? Why?
Common Disinformation Tactics
Disinformation comes in many forms but draws from familiar tactics.
1. Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories usually exploit a kernel of truth or a pre-existing suspicion and develop a "secret plot" narrative. Disinfo-peddlers create conspiracy theories to sow fear and generate support for their cause. For example, Donald Trump’s lie that the election was stolen.
False narratives are repeated over and over again. This exploits the illusory truth effect, which is the phenomenon of belief in false information after it has been repeated. Donald Trump exploited this when he repeated his election lies.
3. Exploiting Trust
Enlisting news anchors, journalists, and influencers to parrot false narratives goes a long way toward making a false narrative appear to be conventional wisdom. Right-wing media, particularly Fox News, used their platform to spread Trump’s lies, exploiting the trust of their viewers. As a result, they lost the Dominion defamation lawsuit.
4. Fake Amplification
Armies of fake social media profiles (bots) are utilized to amplify disinformation. At the end of 2020, #StopTheSteal posts spammed social media. Now, with Twitter/X’s new feature enabling anyone to purchase a blue check, users are able to pay to elevate their content in the algorithm. This gives false credence to nefarious narratives by making them appear popular.
The Making Of The Disinformation Industrial Complex
To effectively combat disinformation, it's essential to understand its roots, the mechanisms that drive it, and the lucrative incentives behind its spread. Here’s a digestible breakdown of how the disinformation industrial complex came to be.
Evolution of the Disinformation Era
Americans once relied on a few major information streams, with the big three networks - NBC, ABC, CBS - and major newspapers dominating the media. There was a set of commonly agreed-upon facts. That is no longer the case. Here’s how we got here:
1980s - Post-Fairness Doctrine: In 1987, Ronald Reagan ended the Fairness Doctrine, which once required networks to air opposing viewpoints. This marked the beginning of an escalation in media polarization.
1990s - Partisan radio and TV: Partisan talk radio, and Rush Limbaugh, rose. In 1996, Fox News was launched by Rupert Murdoch and led by Roger Ailes.
2000s - Internet era: The rise of blogs and independent outlets decentralized media, giving voice to a broader range of perspectives, both genuine and misleading.
2010s - Social media era: Social media rose, and with it, big changes to the digital ad model powered by algorithms. This incentivized content that was polarizing, divisive, and outrageous - leading to the rapid spread of fake news.
The Monetization of Disinfo
Clickbait culture: Sensational headlines and stories drive clicks, increasing ad revenue.
Algorithm motive: Platforms prioritize divisive content that boosts user engagement, further driving ad revenue.
Weaponized disinfo: Malicious actors exploit information for political, financial, or ideological gains, further muddying the waters of truth.
Bots/Amplification: Automated accounts push certain narratives, making them seem more popular or mainstream than they truly are.
Echo Chambers: Users are often trapped in bubbles, exposed only to information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs.
Media: Some networks and online organizations, driven by profit or political agendas, push specific narratives without thorough fact-checking.
Deepfakes & AI: Cutting-edge technologies can create content that's nearly indistinguishable from reality, posing new challenges for discerning truth.
The ramifications of unchecked disinformation are vast and varied:
Democracies targeted: Disinformation campaigns have influenced major political events like Brexit and multiple US elections - culminating in the January 6 insurrection.
Heightened division and polarization: False narratives fuel social unrest and erode trust in vital institutions.
Threats to public health: Misinformation about health crises can lead to widespread panic or complacency, with dire consequences.
Societal dysfunction: Prolonged exposure to disinformation can distort perceptions, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts within communities.
We’re truly living in unprecedented times. The human brain hasn’t evolved yet to withstand this level of constant interconnectivity and the endless onslaught of information we face today. We have to develop and adopt new skills to adapt to this new technological age, which has really just taken hold in the past few decades.
We need an education system that cultivates media literacy at a young age. At the beginning of this year, New Jersey became the first state to mandate information literacy lessons in K-12 schools. It will ensure kids learn how information is made and spread online, as well as crucial critical thinking and research skills. We need more states to follow through with this.
I’ll likely write future articles on more advanced media literacy tactics, ways you can personally combat disinformation, as well as potential legislative solutions. But for now, I hope these basic tactics I outlined are helpful. I appreciate you reading. Stay safe and sane out here.
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