Margaret DiMauro, M.A.
Program Chair, Communication and Media Studies
On a typical day, the average American is bombarded with countless messages, illustrating just how persuasive media has become in our daily lives. The proliferation of media and the constant introduction of new media technologies have certainly afforded us with many benefits and opportunities. We can unwind after a long workday by binging our favorite Netflix program. We can communicate through text or video with family and friends who live far from us. We can log into a work meeting via video conferencing tools from the comfort of our homes. We can read and listen to various opinions on countless topics via blogs, vlogs, or podcasts. We can gather information instantly about current events and breaking news stories. We can vicariously experience fictional worlds and get to know and love their associated characters through books and films. We can even swim with dolphins, hike up Mt. Everest, or closely examine the Mona Lisa through virtual tours or VR platforms and programs.
Media technologies have made it easier to communicate across time and space, provided sources of information and entertainment, and allowed us to connect with others and the world around us in ways that were unimaginable just decades ago. However, they have also presented us with great burdens.
We may not retain information as well because we can easily reference back to it when needed. We may lack face-to-face communication skills because we are used to hiding behind a screen. We may not write as eloquently because we use social media and texting. In this ever-evolving world of new media, we lose some communication skills and gain others.
However, one of the most profound and concerning outcomes of living in such a media-saturated environment is the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation, an issue that has been growing and bubbling to the surface as we witness the way topics like the COVID-19 pandemic have been treated in news and across various media platforms, including social media. In early January of 2021, we experienced the devastating consequences of misinformation and disinformation with the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. After years of dismantling the credibility of mainstream media, circulating conspiracy theories about presidential election fraud, and spreading unverified political news items and opinions across a multitude of media platforms from various groups, including hate groups, a situation like the one that took place in Washington D.C. was almost inevitable. Today more than ever, it is easier not only to come across fake news but even to unknowingly spread it ourselves.
Although the term ‘fake news’ has become the popular way to define a piece of information that is intentionally false – so popular that it earned Collin’s dictionary word of the year in 2017 — experts have moved away from the term in favor of the terms misinformation and disinformation. One of the reasons the term fake news is problematic comes from its multiple and varying meanings. While some individuals use the term to identify false information meant to intentionally harm, others use the term to quickly discredit a news item or a source of information they may not agree with. For this reason, the terms misinformation and disinformation are more effective and accurate in describing the phenomenon.
Disinformation can refer to false or inaccurate information or news that is intentionally spread to mislead the audience while misinformation is false or inaccurate information or news that is spread but not necessarily with the intention to harm. The distinguishing factor between the two terms is intent. For example, when a friend on your Facebook feed shares a news item that he believes to be current, but the event actually occurs years ago, he is spreading misinformation. But a company that posts a false bad review on a competitor’s social media account in order to discredit them is spreading disinformation. Both misinformation and disinformation can be spread by individuals or large organizations in many ways and across various media platforms. The most effective way to combat misinformation and disinformation is to practice media literacy.
Media literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, analyze, create, and act using all forms of media and communication. The media literacy movement is not new; many Americans have encountered the term as a recent response to fight misinformation and disinformation. It began in the early 1970s after a few key initiatives, including one from the United States Department of Education which highlighted the importance of protecting children from the possible harmful effects of mass media. The early years of the media literacy movement were marked by a clear “protectionist” stance that intensified during the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan instituted the deregulation of advertising. Deregulation encouraged the creation of children as consumers, making them a target audience for all kinds of products including toys, sugary cereals, fast food, and other merchandise tied to television programs and films. During this time, media was largely viewed as something to protect children from due to its possible harmful effects. It wasn’t until much later that the media literacy movement began to shift from a protectionist to an empowerment perspective. Fueled by the introduction and rise of social media and other platforms that encourage the document-and-share culture – granting regular people the role of author and creator of their own media messages — the media literacy movement now presents the public with an empowerment stance. Rather than protect ourselves and children from the possible harmful effects of media, the empowerment stance views consumers as active agents and creative producers in the mass media process.
It is the combination of these two perspectives, both protectionist and empowerment, that can be of most use to consumers aiming to understand and combat the issue of misinformation and disinformation. Today, we are both consumers and producers in our media experiences. We draw on skills encompassing both the protectionist and empowerment perspective to give us the best chance to stop misinformation and disinformation in its tracks.
Here are some basic steps we can all take in the fight to stop misinformation and disinformation:
- Recognize the power and influence of mass media. No one is above the influence of media. Mass media is one of the greatest cultivators of our culture. It has become a socializing agent, just as powerful as family, friends, and teachers in shaping what we believe in and what we determine is important. Recognizing this great influence is critical: When we think we are above the influence, we are actually more susceptible to media messages and are less likely to think about them in critical ways.
- Check the source and date of publication. Checking the source and date of publication is the first step in evaluating a piece of information. The source shapes the content and provides an interpretive frame around the information being reported on. Be aware that all news and information is filtered through the lens of various gatekeepers whose goal is to maintain a particular stance reflective of the company producing that piece of media. In addition to checking the source, you can also check what company or organization owns the source. This can help you determine the source’s credibility but also the specific intent of producing the message itself. Before sharing any information, check the publication date to ensure it is current.
- Look beyond the headline and image. Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are built on giving information snapshots or complete image-based information. All too often, consumers share information after reading only a headline, the first paragraph of a news story, or just viewing an image. Headlines and images are used to capture the attention of the audience and can be misleading in representing the actual content associated with the information itself. In order to truly understand the information and evaluate its accuracy and credibility, be sure to read beyond the headline.
- Be aware of confirmation bias. When we encounter a new piece of information, we judge it based on what we already know and believe to be true. If the new information aligns with or confirms what we think we know or believe to be true, we do not take the time to evaluate it. When the new information is contrary to our beliefs or perceived knowledge, we are much less likely to deem it credible, will work hard to discredit it, or will quickly dismiss it as false. We tend to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs rather than challenge what we believe.
- Step out of your comfort zone. Most of us get our news and information from social media or internet sources. It’s important to remember that when we interact with information on these platforms, we are accessing it through a filter bubble. This information has been curated based on previous likes, follows, and search history, and is reflective of our distinct stances on politics and culture. As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s important to seek out information from the other side to ensure a balanced perspective.