‘Tis the season of hope, faith and joy. So, like everybody else, the Columbian’s Editorial Board is putting together a wish list.
Of course, we will ask Santa for conscientious elected representatives, and free and fair elections, and a new bridge. (Doesn’t everybody have those items on their list?) But most of all we hope for improved media literacy from the residents of Clark County and elsewhere.
That’s not something that can be placed under the tree and opened on Christmas morning. It will require diligence and resolve from our neighbors, and it will require a change in behavior by many.
Whether it is about COVID-19 vaccines or presidential elections or climate change, misinformation is pervasive in American society, and far too many people are unable or unwilling to separate truth from fiction. The reasons are easy to see; a Pew Research study from January found that 86 percent of American adults get their news from a smartphone. A big chunk of that is from Facebook, Twitter and other social media, where misinformation is gobbled up like pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream on top.
Recent revelations from Facebook’s internal workings have demonstrated the flaws. Beginning in 2017, the platform’s algorithm prioritized posts that solicited “angry” emojis over those that were “liked.” The result was that emotional and provocative content was more likely to show up on your Facebook feed.
As The Washington Post explained in October: “The company’s data scientists confirmed in 2019 that posts that sparked angry reaction emojis were disproportionately likely to include misinformation, toxicity and low-quality news.”
“Low-quality news” is an understatement. During the past two presidential elections, stories from nonexistent newspapers have been shared millions of times on Facebook. If you believed or shared a “news” story from the Denver Guardian or the Baltimore Gazette, you were duped; they don’t exist, except in the form of somebody sitting in a basement making up stories.
The result is a society in which falsehoods about elections or vaccines spread unabated. The result is a society in which truthiness — the quality of seeming or being felt to be true — carries more weight than truth. We have seen the consequences of this alternative reality, with thousands of people believing enough lies to try to overthrow the United States government.
A new Commission on Information Disorder, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, has called for “new regulations on social media platforms, stronger, more consistent rules for misinformation ‘superspreaders’ who amplify harmful falsehoods and new investments in authoritative journalism and organizations that teach critical thinking and media literacy,” according to The Associated Press.
Regulating the media is tricky and dangerous. The marketplace of ideas relies on an informed public — but one that can discern the truth.
Along those lines, several states have considered legislation to improve media literacy. In Washington, a bill introduced this year (Senate Bill 5242) to support “media literacy and digital citizenship” failed to make it out of committee.
While lawmakers must consider the ramifications of this nation’s information disorder, the real solution rests with us. More discriminating media consumption, beginning with simply asking, “Is this story from a reliable source?” is the first step toward delivering a merry Christmas for those who care about truth.