The Factual’s media literacy scholarship was open worldwide between March-May 2020. Over 100 entries were received in the high school category. The essay prompt was: ““In the digital age, access to information has broken down countless barriers. However, it has also provided the platform for disinformation to spread, leaving it up to the audience to determine what to believe. What does it mean to you to be ‘informed’?” Natalie Tsang’s essay was awarded honorable mention in the college category.
“No, Grandma, herbal tea will not cure coronavirus.”
I smile into the phone as I listen to my grandma insisting that the Chinese herbal tea she had brewed would prevent and cure coronavirus. Of course, to her, it was true— she heard it from WeChat, the number one source of news for all Chinese aunties. Listening to her on the phone, I realized how dangerous disinformation is.
Especially in the year 2020, filled with global pandemics, murder hornets, and impeachments, disinformation has spread far and wide. News is conflicting, and it’s difficult to tell what is true and fake. In the digital age, disinformation can spread quickly in platforms such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, WeChat, and WhatsApp. Now, more than ever, it is essential and of utmost importance to not fall prey to disinformation. To me, being informed is taking news, evaluating its trustworthiness, and examining multiple perspectives. Then, using that information, I can create my opinions and beliefs about issues.
In true honesty, it was only in 2019 that I began to care about the news and staying informed. My family hails from China, and my parents were born and raised in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a near and dear place to my heart. Last year, I witnessed the beginnings of the 2019 Hong Kong protests when I was in Hong Kong in June. In short, the 2019 Hong Kong protests were triggered by an extradition bill for criminals between China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The bill brought up worries and concerns with protestors believing the Chinese government was overstepping their jurisdiction in Hong Kong. Ultimately, this led to protests that snowballed into months of unrest, violence, and police brutality. The protests began to stand for a pro-democracy movement rather than just concern over an extradition bill. Hong Kong descended into a state of chaos and dissension, with a clear divide between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy supporters.
For me, it became extremely important to be informed, so that I could decide what my stance was. My family was especially divided on this issue, with the older generation of relatives firmly believing in whatever news they saw first. However, I didn’t want to base my own beliefs off flimsy evidence. I found myself investing multiple hours every day reading current news and Hong Kong history. I also examined news articles and firsthand accounts, evaluating the bias they could have. My parents and I researched which news channels were pro-Beijing versus pro-democracy, as that affected how news was portrayed and presented. Honestly, my own beliefs lean towards the pro-democracy side of the protests. I found myself cheering the protestors on and calling the police brutal and violent, but I had to take a step back and examine the truthfulness of what I was believing. While it was easier to follow the masses of one side being the absolute right, I wasn’t examining what information I was defining as truth.
As the violence escalated, so did the difficulty of discerning what was true and what was false. Accounts of events were often conflicting, and different theories ran rampant. Fiction and truth blended together. Although lines blurred, it was still so important for me to be informed on what the truth was. To me, being informed wasn’t only about knowing what was going on. Rather, staying informed meant that I was supporting the truth and speaking out about injustice when I saw it, whether it was Hong Kong protests or the Uyghur Muslims. Truthful information is the only way for corruption to be exposed, for injustice to be uncovered, and for oppression to be unveiled.
Particularly in this time and age, with the coronavirus global pandemic, I’ve taken staying informed much more seriously for the sake of my health and the health of those around me. With the Hong Kong protests, I found myself verifying and validating the possible political bias behind news. But while I cared deeply about the situation in Hong Kong, it honestly did not affect my life that closely. With the coronavirus, however, it’s a different story. It directly impacts my life, and staying informed equates keeping myself healthy and safe. While checking the news, I constantly check the scientific validity behind it. I’ve learned how vital and essential it is that everything is fact checked and true, a habit I picked up from working in a research lab. Especially as an aspiring physician and scientific researcher, I always take the extra step to verify data or claims. When articles make claims about coronavirus or a possible cure, I go directly to the original research publication and read through it. Being informed is not only about staying up to date about news, but rather, it is taking the extra step to verify if the news is true or if it is misleading.
It’s never easy to be informed, and disinformation can easily pass as the truth. But for the sake of our own healths and for the welfare of those around us, it’s vital to take the news we receive and verify the validity of it. It can be easy to take everything we see online as the truth, whether it is WeChats that claim coronavirus can be cured by herbal tea or TikToks that say whole avocados can dye clothes pink. And while the digital age allows for the spread of disinformation, it can also allow the spread of truth and information. Being informed isn’t just about knowing what’s going on in the world— it’s also informing others on social injustice and things that people need to stand up for. So be informed— about the coronavirus, the Hong Kong protests, and other world happenings!