In many ways, this question gets to the very core of what this course, News Literacy in a Digital Age, is all about. These days, news and information are virtually synonymous with social media for the simple reason that social media is how the news reaches the majority of people. So whether it’s a post written by someone you know on a topic of public interest, a link they or someone they know posted, or just a meme claiming a “fact” about something controversial, these updates from friends, family and others (like sponsored posts) effectively are the news.
And that’s dangerous, but only if we believe everything we see on social media. Instead, we should look at social media like a house of mirrors at a carnival: everything has the potential to be distorted, and even if we like the way one version of reality appears better than another, we should never mistake it for reality. So how do we tell the difference, especially as this house of mirrors appears to have no end? In other words, how can we tell which reflection of reality is the most accurate?
For starters, maintain a healthy skepticism — particularly about anything you haven’t seen reported elsewhere. Take, for instance, a set of guidelines in the graphic to the left on how to perform a quick “self-test” for COVID-19 that went viral over the past week and was eventually debunked by Mother Jones. Attributed to Stanford University, the post was shared via email, Facebook and Twitter by countless people. But it turned out to be fake and risked making the pandemic even worse by recommending a bogus self-test that would turn up a “negative” result in people who may very well have COVID-19.
What could those who shared the post have done instead? They could have stopped for literally three seconds and thought, “Hmmm… this would be great, if true, but given how major this is, it must be getting some attention from other outlets. Let me check.” Doing a quick search would reveal that, a) no other outlets were reporting on this alleged Stanford report, and b) that it was, in fact, a hoax.
But what about posts that can’t be so easily proved or debunked, such as posts suggesting that coronavirus is part of a deep-state Democratic plot to unseat President Trump? While many people might read that and immediately think it’s a loony conspiracy theory, others will see it as thoroughly plausible. After all, given all that’s happened in recent years, just about anything is thinkable.
In such cases, we can examine the language of the post — for hyperbole or poor grammar, for instance — as well as the content, for vague or unsubstantiated assertions, far-reaching inferences or appeals to emotions over reason. Confirmation bias is real, and the more likely someone might be to consider that something “thinkable” is true, the more likely they are to share it under the auspices of “news.”
To counter this, we all need to recognize that we live in a very reactive time, and that it’s easy to believe anything that corroborates the reflection of the reality we like best. And we need to be vigilant — precisely because it’s in our DNA to believe things we want to be true, and to then want to share that belief with others. It’s how we operate and connect as human beings, for better and for worse.
As my 11-year-old niece remarked to me just the other day, in a chat about coronavirus, “It’s really spreadable. It’s like a rumor in that respect.”