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’?” Joseph Tillis’ essay was awarded honorable mention in the high school category.
“I have said that propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation have always been part of political warfare. Social media and other new platforms have given it a new life and reach through which the fake news phenomenon can reach everywhere” (Bhutto Zaradi). This quote from Pakistani political leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari insightfully portrays a critical dilemma of modern society. The same tools that sustain friendships and allow for an unprecedented spread of important information can be used to deceive mass numbers of people at a shocking rate. If so many news stories that people see on a daily basis are less than factual, how can people tell the difference between fake and real news? In an age of disinformation, distrust of mainstream media, and extraordinary interconnectedness, what habits do well-informed people utilize in order to understand the truth?
First, truly informed people regularly exercise discernment and have learned to curb their gullibility. They understand a news story’s bias or potential bias before they draw conclusions from it. They understand, for instance, that Fox News is biased toward conservatism, that MSNBC is biased toward liberalism, and that a phony-sounding story is probably false. Furthermore, they recognize that their social media feeds are rife with fake and deceptive news stories. Many social media users often have to wade through this web of confusion. Unfortunately, this is no easy task because exciting news stories are ripe for sharing or retweeting. A study published in the journal Science even discovered that truth took “about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1500 people” on Twitter (Vosoughi). Such a problem arises because false stories often have a validating, assuring appeal. Uninformed people naturally believe these stories because they want to believe them. One example: “Omar Holding Secret Fundraisers with Islamic Groups Tied to Terror” was an enticing news story that became enormously popular on Facebook, raking in hundreds of thousands of interactions. Yet it was completely false. Its popularity stemmed from its partisan appeal. Contrarily, informed people value truth, even difficult truth, over validation. They form conclusions off of proven facts and reason rather than rumors and clickbait. Thus, healthy doses of skepticism and discernment are essential if one is to wisely consume news media in 2020.
Similarly, truly informed people absorb information from multiple perspectives, through multiple channels, and in multiple spheres of learning. First, they challenge themselves with viewpoints that are very different from theirs. Humans are all too inclined to stay within their ideological comfort zones and not challenge themselves with differing ideas. Yet echo chambers rarely generate insightful or workable solutions to problems. Oftentimes they are error-prone and produce naïve propositions. Being truly informed consistently challenges, alters, or shapes one’s perspectives on various issues. It also means understanding both sides of an issue, not just the one that is easy to believe. Second, truly informed people learn through multiple avenues. They learn from books, from their social media feeds, from newspapers, from coworkers, from the person next to them on an airplane. They keep their eyes and minds open to new truth. A person willing to get off his phone and learn from the people around him sharpens his mind and refines his character. Third, truly informed people know a little about a lot. The vast troves of information that the Internet offers allows a person to become isolated in his knowledge base to a specific niche. Truly informed people break out of such niches and explore new realms of knowledge.
Truly informed people also practice the countercultural act of listening. They process, digest, and think critically about what they hear. They do more than collect a matinee of talking points with which to dispel inconvenient ideas; they are disciplined enough to focus on others in a noise-infested, hurried world. They make the most of learning experiences. They ask questions and gradually gain knowledge and wisdom.
Finally, truly informed people maintain healthy habits that feed their minds. They limit time with electronic distractions that often do little to enrich their lives. This is not to say modern communication tools are inherently harmful or wrong. On the contrary, they can be used to draw disconnected friends closer together, maintain relationships that might otherwise wane, and help decisions to be made with more wisdom and efficiency. However, they are just as capable of harm. Influences from communication tools can make people less wise and deeply misinformed. Thus it is beneficial to retreat from social media minefields of outrage and untruth on a regular basis, and become wiser, fuller, more confident, more educated, and generally more pleasant because of it.
Fake news is not new. Wherever there is truth there is a possibility that a person will conceive a half-truth or lie to hide it. Yet social media has amplified the propensity of falsehoods to spread. Ignorance and one-sided views are also familiar menaces, yet the brave new world of Internet capabilities allows a person to more firmly plant his feet in his own conception of reality. If one person believes something, somebody else who desires to broadcast his opinion online probably does as well. Also, as deepfakes and global access to the Internet appear on the horizon, it will be more and more necessary to be vigilant in the pursuit of truth. Thus it is crucial, and will continue to be crucial, to fight personal biases, exercise discernment, learn from numerous different sources, and employ healthy practices such as listening carefully to other people and withdrawing from social media. By doing these things, a person can enrich himself, enrich his society, and become truly informed.
- Bhutto Zardari, Bilawal. Interview by Irfan Aftab. Pakistan’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: ‘We need to counter extremist ideological narrative.’ 26 Jan. 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/pakistans-bilawal-bhutto-zardari-we-need-to-counter-extremist-ideological-narrative/a-42317472. Accessed 12 May 2020.
- Vosoughi, Soroush, et al. “The Spread of True and False News Online.” Science, vol. 359, no. 6380, 9 Mar. 2018, pp. 1146–1151., doi:10.1126/science.aap9559.