By Matt Watson
Social media’s influence on American politics and the 2016 presidential election will be studied for decades to come.
But before the final analysis is written, journalists, academics and non-governmental organizations are working to prepare citizens to be more aware of the effects of rapid, unverified mass communication — and each person’s role in discerning and disseminating truth.
Emerson Brooking, a former research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” detailed the large-scale and potentially lethal consequences of the rapid spread of information on social media in his visit to Metropolitan State University of Denver this month.
We should start thinking of media and information literacy as a public health issue, Brooking said.
“There has to be some sort of mandatory instruction that helps people distinguish truth from falsehood online,” he said. “Understand that everyone has an agenda, and they’re trying to shift you in one direction or another.”
The war online sometimes translates to physical war on a battlefield, Brooking said. In 2014, Islamic State fighters armed with as many smartphones as assault weapons took over the city of Mosul despite being vastly outnumbered by Iraqi soldiers by broadcasting their violent offensive with a Twitter hashtag.
“If you’re studying marketing, take a course on ethics. Think about the nature of truth and falsehood and what moral responsibility you bear in ensuring that your client is communicating something that’s true. It’s very easy now to convince people to do something contrary to all the facts,” Brooking said. “You have to enter your profession with a set of principles.”
The science agrees.
A landmark 2017 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investigated the dissemination of more than 125,000 true and false news items across Twitter over the course of a decade and found that fake news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than verified, fact-based news.
“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories. The effects were most pronounced for false political news,” compared with other topics, the study revealed. The human tendency to readily believe and share false information has broad implications beyond just becoming an annoying uncle on Facebook.
What would such instruction look like?
The American Democracy Project, a network of more than 250 state colleges and universities that aims to graduate informed and engaged citizens, is piloting the Digital Polarization: Online Civic Literacy initiative at 11 higher education institutions, including MSU Denver, to create a framework for students and others to become more diligent digital citizens.
ADP designed a two-week curriculum that can be implemented in just about any college course last fall. Students take a skills test before and after the curriculum, and ADP is assessing the results to see how well the curriculum develops digital-media literacy.
The curriculum boils down to “four moves and a habit,” starting with checking your emotions before fact-checking. The four strategies are:
The ADP curriculum was implemented in three MSU Denver courses, and another five courses with a similar curriculum already in place took the ADP before-and-after tests.
Caila Garcia, a double major in biology and anthropology, learned the curriculum in her Writing Center Theory and Practice class. Garcia applies the steps in her role as a Writing Center tutor to help students quickly evaluate sources while doing research.
“I felt like I had a pretty solid background, so I think I did pretty well on the pre-test, but after the lessons, I was able to get through the post-test more quickly and save some time,” she said.
Related: Making the case for local journalism
Steve Sarin, a journalism major, said students in his class, “Media & Influencer Relations” probably have a leg up in determining the credibility of sources compared with other students, but he did learn a new trick: using a Google Images search to verify the origin of an image.
If you right-click on an image in an internet browser, you will have the option to “Search Google for image” (terminology varies by browser/search engine) to see if the image has been posted elsewhere online. You can also upload images from a computer to search. Users can then sort those results by date to see when an image was first published or whether there are discrepancies in similar photos that indicate one has been altered.
The faculty member who taught Sarin’s course, Steve Krizman, assistant professor of public relations, said only two of his 15 students discovered that a questionable source claiming to be a professional pediatricians organization is actually a partisan advocacy group.
“These students are more critical of information sources than most — we teach these young journalists the old adage, ‘If your mom says she loves you, you'd better check it out.’” Krizman said. “But they are like any of us: barely keeping up with our splintered newsgathering and distribution system. We are showered with links that meld news, opinion, fact and fiction in our social media timelines.
iNation: Democracy in the Era of Social Media & Fake News
Feb. 19, 2019 | 9 a.m.-4:15 p.m.
Jordan Student Success Building
Featured Session (12:30-1:20 p.m.):
“The Digital Polarization Initiative: Civic and Web Literacy in the Classroom”
Keynote Lecture (3:30-4:15 p.m.):
“Everyone is Wrong on the Internet: Disagreement and Error in Social Media Discourse”
This event is free and open to the public.
Krizman said the best thing about the four moves method is that there are quick verification steps you can take before you even spend time reading an article.
“It can become a habit like washing your hands before eating: Google search a headline or source name, filter it down to News results or do a reverse image search,” he said.
Chris Jennings, professor of mobile and social media, is presenting themes from the Digital Polarization initiative at an event Tuesday with Elizabeth Parmelee, director of undergraduate studies. Jennings compares scrutinizing information on social media with riding a bike.
“Riding a bike was a lot of work when you first tried it, and when you don’t ride a bike for a long time and you get on again it’s a lot of work. Balance and coordination take a lot of different skills,” Jennings said. “It’s not something you just pick up immediately, but there are ways to make it easier, and once things become more familiar, your brain goes on autopilot eventually.
“The more your brain analyzes these things, you start to see patterns and find things that come up consistently and you can cut through the noise.”
The Digital Polarization presentation is part of an interdisciplinary symposium called “iNation: Democracy in the Era of Social Media & Fake News.” The Denver Project for Humanistic Inquiry, or D-phi, is hosting the symposium that also includes sessions on anti-Muslim rhetoric, the civics of responsibility, the memes and mechanics of the cybersphere, and upping your election IQ.
The keynote address, “Everyone is Wrong on the Internet: Disagreement and Error in Social Media Discourse” will be delivered by Regina Rini, Canada research chair in Philosophy of Moral & Social Cognition at York University.
Adam Graves, director of D-phi and associate professor of philosophy at MSU Denver, designed the symposium to examine various aspects of digital and social media through the lens of democracy.
“I think people are increasingly realizing that they have to be critical consumers of the information encountered on the web,” Graves said. “At the end of the day, distinguishing between good information and bad information requires more than just additional information – it will require understanding. And by that I mean a broader awareness of the context and critical capacity for interpreting what we encounter online.
“Still, despite all of the downsides, I’ve found that it is possible to have really productive conversations in some of these platforms, and so there are more than just negative dimensions to the problem. Like most technological revolutions, it cuts both ways.”
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