Media Literacy (How to Spot Fake News)
Libraries promote media literacy to fight “fake news”
[This op-ed originally appeared in The Clearwater Progress on Sept. 13, 2018.]
“Fake news” is a phrase that has been introduced into our collective consciousness and political conversations, but what does it really mean? How can we tell if a headline, image, or article is legitimate or manufactured, whether it’s fact or opinion, or a mixture of both? Your library has a variety of resources to help jumpstart the critical thinking process needed to navigate today’s complex media landscape.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey of 5,035 U.S. adults measuring the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.
Prairie River Library District (PRLD) subscribes to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ position that “critical thinking is a key skill in media and information literacy, and the mission of libraries is to educate and advocate its importance.”
This skill of evaluating sources and content for bias and checking our own biases, which takes effort and practice, is called media literacy. The first step in gaining media literacy is understanding that ALL media messages are biased, some more extremely than others.
In order to promote a more educated political climate, in addition to focusing on voter registration at all eight of our PRLD branches this fall, a full-color brochure with media literacy information will be available to help you understand how to spot “fake news” and other ways that media messages attempt to influence us with propaganda. We’ll also be posting this information on prld.org.
Okay, so all media are biased. How can we determine the bias in a media source? A Denver patent attorney has taken on the task of ranking major outlets according to their political leanings (left, center, or right) and overall quality (fact vs. fabrication) and compiling an easy-to-read chart shown below. Updated versions and her methodology are covered extensively on her site, mediabiaschart.com. On her blog, she includes the observation that “the political affiliations of the authors/publishers themselves are not a good proxy for how extremely right- or left-wing a story is because motives of various authors or publishers of nonsense can vary widely."
Anyone who has used social media has probably fallen into the trap of sharing something of questionable origin including memes. Mixed in with legitimate links to reputable sources, internet memes (often images with text overlay that are shared widely) have little or no value in communicating complex or nuanced ideas. What’s so compelling that we want to share? Usually it’s something we already strongly believe or a form of virtue signaling, empty gestures of perceived superiority.
A 2017 Fortune article referencing an American Journal of Political Science study stated that this kind of activity on social media is, “In many cases…a way to signify membership in a group, rather than a desire to share information.” Sean Westwood, one of the political scientists who conducted the study, says they found that the drive to confirm our existing biases affects the news we choose to consume and share.
Another term for this is “confirmation bias,” which is what sociologists call the desire to believe things that confirm the views we already have about people or things. Before you share that post, ask yourself “Is this informative or emotional?” While that dopamine rush might feel good temporarily, sharing misinformation or “fake news” is dangerous.
A majority of adults now get their news from our social media feeds. We are flooded with information on a daily basis and often it’s easier to react emotionally than mindfully but what the library staff encourages you to do is slow down, ask yourself a few questions, consider the intent of the writer, and pause before sharing something that’s possibly false or inaccurate. Make the library your first stop in your Media Literacy quest and share the new info with your friends and family. Together, using our critical thinking skills, we can fight “fake news” and make decisions based on research, not fear.
 Full report and infographics at http://www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/distinguishing-between-factual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/
Information Overload Helps Fake News Spread, and Social Media Knows It - Scientific American article (Dec. 2020)
allsides.com - Revealing bias from all sides
hoaxeye.com - A fake photo is worth 1,000 words
politifact.com - Checking statements of Congress, etc.
factcheck.org - Nonprofit and nonpartisan
opensecrets.org - Tracks effects of money and lobbying
flackcheck.org - Helps reveal flaws in political arguments
sunlightfoundation.com - Advocating for open government
newslit.org - Learn how to know what to believe in the digital age
Indiana University Fake News Guide