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5 Questions to Fight the Disinformation War

Misinformation and disinformation are rampant on social media. How can we help?

Key points

  • Youth are disproportionate users of social media platforms, and the amount of time spent online has escalated.
  • Social media algorithms determine the content you see based on user experience rather than accuracy.
  • Schools are not required to teach social media literacy, so caregivers must step up.

One of the greatest threats to democracy, free speech, and international diplomacy are authoritarian regimes that increasingly control the flow of information through social media.

Unsurprisingly, youth are the largest consumers and targets with the biggest knowledge deficit in social media literacy (Media Literacy Now, 2020). Non-school-related screen time among teenagers doubled from pre-pandemic estimates of 3.8 hours per day to 7.7 hours (Nagata et al., 2022), spending much of that time on social media.

In early 2021, TikTok was second to Snapchat as the most popular platform for US teens and preteens (Statista, 2021), but by the end of that same year, TikTok took the crown, with data showing average use of 105.1 minutes daily by youth aged 13-19 (AP News, 2021).

 geralt / 24131 images/Pixabay
TikTok is the most popular platform for young users.
Source: geralt / 24131 images/Pixabay

We are muddling through this age of information, misinformation, and disinformation. Without fact-checked content, we are doomed to live amongst increasingly large groups of indignant people armed with inaccurate facts and misrepresentations of events.

For example, false memes and hashtags on inflation rates, COVID vaccines, corporate smear campaigns, the January 6 insurrection, critical race theory (CRT), voter suppression, and the war in Ukraine are presently propagating.

Understanding the User Experience

There are only two ways to stymie the avalanche of disinformation:

  1. Hold big tech accountable for accurate content.
  2. Educate ourselves and our children on social media literacy. While the former is fraught with freedom of speech legal protections, in the interim, we can support the public and GenZ with the latter.

At the heart of social media, algorithms are countless lines of constantly updated code used to determine what we see; they direct our beliefs and life experiences. Code cannot feel or determine truth. Rather, its sole motivation is to heighten user experience and keep users attached.

A recent investigation by the anti-misinformation outlet NewsGuard found:

...analysts’ feeds were almost exclusively populated with both accurate and false content related to the war in Ukraine - with no distinction made between disinformation and reliable sources (Hern, 2022).

Further, when you follow someone on Twitter, you will be shown others like them. If you watch a video on Tik Tok for at least ten seconds, you will be shown similar videos, the antithesis of our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

You are being siloed, not exposed to a safe environment to participate in public debates with those with dissimilar viewpoints, a practice upon which democracy is predicated. With half of Twitter's 330 million users receiving their daily news from the platform exclusively (Walker & Matsa, 2021), we must make conscious and intentional efforts to diversify our exposure.

Last, disinformation campaigns collectively desensitize us to acceptable behaviors. For example, when Will Smith hit Chris Rock at the Academy Awards, everyone was quick to post their opinions. But if we take a step back, as a society, when did we ever think for a moment that physical violence was acceptable in any shape or form? We have become inured to the extremes to which we are exposed and propagated via social media. The proverbial boiling frog syndrome.

The Five Questions

Until we mediate free speech with accountability in accurate posting, ask yourself the following questions to better support our youth:

1.) What’s going on in our schools? Currently, Illinois is the only state mandating media literacy in its curriculum to be taught in schools. Others are looking to follow suit (Media Literacy, 2021), though no states have a requirement for schools to teach social media literacy.

As caregivers, it is our responsibility to teach our children how to use and consume social media. On average, across OECD countries, only 54 percent of students reported being trained at school on recognizing bias in media. Not coincidentally, these same students demonstrated improved reading performance (OECD, 2021).

2.) Have you done it yourself? Teaching children to use social media properly requires adults to understand how it works. Invest the time to learn about the different platforms and their unique algorithms. Sign up for accounts on the platforms your kids reside and communicate with them there. You are then equipped to have impactful conversations about content.

3.) Do you know where that’s from? Teach them to check their sources and always question where they got their information. Take the important step of clicking on profiles to:

  • Confirm that URLs match up to account names and websites.
  • Reverse search profile pictures to determine authenticity.
  • Analyze the number of followers, friends, and quality of content.
  • Cross-reference the account to other platforms (Klug, 2022).

4.) What’s in store in our future Digiverse? The future of technology is both exciting and disturbing. We are entering an age where artificial intelligence (AI) will have the ability to drive (and predict) our behaviors based on the incalculable amount of data we provide without even realizing it. Soon, we will be living in virtual worlds like the Metaverse.

Taking meetings, spending time with friends, ordering meals, and playing sports will all take place in a digital universe. However, consider this warning from Janis Sarts, Director of NATO Strategic Communications Centre:

Youngsters, especially adolescents, are especially prone to making emotional and instinctive decisions. This behavior typically coincides with a younger age group who excessively use digital interaction and communication tools, thus enriching available data considerably. This group may be the most vulnerable to psychological influence in the digital arena (Sarts, 2019).

5.) How often do you check it out? Put into regular practice a complete social media audit of your accounts and get your children into the same habit. Unfollow accounts that cannot be confirmed and recalibrate with your family on what are considered trusted sources. Base your audit on these 12 good practices in using social media from OECD (Wendling et al., 2012). Also, know your social media purpose and understand what you are getting from every engagement.

Conclusion

And, yes! Access to the Internet has empowered young and old alike to gain access to boundless invaluable knowledge. From a young age, children are teaching themselves about financial literacy, climate change, how to get scholarships and financial aid, and so much more. During COVID, for better or worse, kids with Internet access and technology were able to access some type of education.

However, more than ever, especially until we have longitudinal research on best practices, we need to rely on our instincts and depths of experience to wisely interact with the Internet. The neuroscience hasn’t changed – the more time you spend researching and engaging with content using all of your senses, the higher the likelihood that it will be stored in your long-term memory.

Hopefully, we will learn some unexpected long-term benefits from using the Internet as we lose some tried and true faculties.

References

AP Wire. (2021). Tik Tok is Now the Most Used App by Teens and PreTeens in the US. AP News. https://apnews.com/press-release/pr-newswire/business-corporate-news-cu….

Hern, Alex. (2022). TikTok Algorithm Directs Users to Fake News About Ukraine War Study Says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/mar/21/tiktok-algorithm-dir….

Klug, T. (2022). Fact Check: How do I spot fake social media accounts, bots, and trolls? DW Akademie. https://www.dw.com/en/fact-check-how-do-i-spot-fake-social-media-accoun….

Media Literacy Now. (2020). US Media Literacy Policy Report. Media Literacy Now. https://medialiteracynow.org/u-s-media-literacy-policy-report-2020/.

Nagata, J., Cortez, C., & Cattle, C. (2022). Screen Time Use Among US Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Jama Pediatrics. 176(1): 94-96. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.4334.

OECD. (2021). 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World, PISA. OECD Publishing, https://doi.org/10.1787/a83d84cb-en.

Sarts, Janis. (2019). Securing Digital Natives. Freedom Security Privacy. https://freedomreport.5rightsfoundation.com/securing-digital-natives,

Statista. (2021). Most Popular Social Networks of Teenagers in the United States from fall 2012 to fall 2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/250172/social-network-usage-of-us-t….

Walker, M., & Matsa, K. (2021). News Consumption Across Social Media in 2021. Pew Research. https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2021/09/20/news-consumption-acro….

Wendling, C., Radisch, J., & Jacobzone, S. (2012). Use of Social Media in Risk and Crisis Communication. OECD. https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/the-use-of-social-media-in-ri…

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