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Friday, May 24, 2024

The importance of media literacy

We must do everything we can to combat misinformation

 

By CLAIRE SCHAD — cfschad@ucdavis.edu 

 

As college students, most of us have gotten pretty good at identifying credible and non-credible sources. Many of our classes spend countless hours drilling the importance of research skills and careful source selection into our heads, helping us recognize the importance of forming our arguments with support from trusted sources. 

However, gathering credible sources for a research paper often looks a bit different than most people’s daily news consumption. So, while it can be easy for many college students to decide whether a source is credible enough for their assignment, it is often not as easy to discern whether that news headline you saw on X, formerly known as Twitter, is true, misleading or completely false altogether.

It has never been easier to spread misinformation. The rise of the digital age has paved the way for new voices to be brought into the spotlight. While this undeniably has some positive effects, such as giving a platform to those who had previously failed to receive formal media attention due to societal biases, it has also given a microphone to those with ill-fated intentions. This means that digital media users are left to comb through a seemingly infinite stream of content, deciding for themselves what is true and what is not. 

The process of evaluating media for its accuracy and legitimacy is deemed “media literacy,” a skill that most people have no formal training in, causing many consumers to be unable to discern if the media they are consuming is accurate and reputable. 

Falling for fake news can be especially easy on social media because as humans we often go to Instagram, TikTok or X, for entertainment first and news second, meaning our minds are on the hunt for entertaining content. This causes us to latch on to the most dramatic or interesting headlines, often failing to recognize that they are fake or misleading. A study conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that fake news reaches people about six times faster than real news, demonstrating that entertaining or seemingly unbelievable headlines receive the most attention. 

The epidemic of fake news should cause us all to worry, and there is no sign of it slowing down. The emergence of publicly available generative artificial intelligence (AI) platforms has added an entirely new area of concern that makes fake media even harder to identify. Altered images, videos and audio commonly known as deepfakes have been on the rise, making it almost impossible for media consumers to tell the difference between altered and original content. One of the most troubling cases of this is occurring at high schools across the US, where students have non-consensually used photos of their fellow classmates to generate nude images and videos, which are then shared online.  

However, it’s not just high schoolers who have been messing around with deepfake technology, those working to spread political misinformation can alter audio and video clips to depict politicians saying things they never really said. For example, earlier this year in New Hampshire, ahead of the primary elections, many voters received a robocall that featured what appeared to be President Biden’s voice urging them not to vote. “Your vote makes a difference in November, not this Tuesday,” the voice said. As we head into the first Presidential election season where AI is being used widely by the public, it is hard not to think about the dangers that AI-generated fake media could pose to the election due to our nation’s low media literacy skills. 

I’m sure many people think it’s easy to spot fake news or content by recognizing the surrounding context, however, it’s not as simple as you might think. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that as many as three in four Americans overestimate their ability to spot fake headlines in the news. Another common misconception is that older individuals who are not as familiar with technology are the most susceptible to fake news. But this was also debunked by a study at the University of Cambridge that found despite their increased familiarity with technology, young people and heavy media users are more likely to fall for fake headlines. 

It is clear that our society is lacking media literacy and it is scary to think of all of the ways that people could be misled by fake news. Given the growing reliance on technology and digital media, something must change. Despite the widespread acknowledgment of the danger that fake news poses, only four US states — California, New Jersey, Delaware and Texas — require media literacy education at all grade levels. 

While it is encouraging that states are starting to adopt media literacy into their education practices, more work must be done to ensure that all students across the country have access to this valuable curriculum, which has been shown to increase media awareness and the ability to identify false information. 

All states should work to implement media literacy instruction in all grades immediately. By giving students the necessary tools to spot and combat misinformation we could help our society overcome the fake news epidemic. We must also all hold ourselves accountable and ensure that we only share credible news. We have seen the harm that fake news and media can cause and now we must do everything in our power to stop it. 

 

Written by: Claire Schad — cfschad@ucdavis.edu 

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

 

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