This post was written by ScIU Social Media Intern Jack Reasner, an undergraduate at IU’s Media School.
The Center for Media Literacy defines media literacy as “a 21st-century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.” Media literacy is becoming an invaluable skill. With an internet culture that breeds the “anything goes” mindset, it’s essential to take information with a grain of salt and to remember that misinformation can have very real consequences.
A perfect example is the Pizzagate disaster of 2016. The Pizzagate conspiracy first appeared on the political message board of 4chan, a hive of internet trolling and the biggest pro-Donald Trump subreddit. The story claimed that Hillary Clinton was using hidden areas of a pizza shop named “Comet Ping Pong” to rape children as part of a broader child trafficking program. Then suddenly, the stakes escalated dramatically– a North Carolina man was arrested after he barged into Comet Pizza with a semi-automatic rifle to finally solve the conspiracy theory for himself. The man pointed his gun at an employee, and then fired at least one shot. Thankfully, there were no reported injuries.
Businesses, politicians and ordinary citizens increasingly integrate digital media into their lives. This steady increase in media usage demands action on the part of the viewer. Just as athletes must train to stay in shape, readers must develop their literacy skills to tell fact from fiction on social media sites. Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram now act as public forums for many debates, opening a whole new set of variables into the already intricate world of misinformation.
First, private ownership of websites and social media platforms can lead to unjust censorship, and politicians can circumvent traditional political debates and mislead voters with false information. In addition, the algorithms on social media sites funnel users with similar viewpoints into contact with each other and keep them away from users with differing opinions. Over time, the division of users based on their ideologies creates echo-chambers, environments in which a user encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own.
These echo-chambers reinforce users’ views and shield them from considering alternative views, which essentially turns their whole social media feed into nothing but a series of yes-men. When paired together, the consequences stemming from private ownership and the formation of echo-chambers is the mass spread of misinformation, which acts to further division among numerous opposing groups and leads to a more hectic media realm (click here to see a media bias chart). Thus, developing media literacy skills is crucial for all; without it, society will easily fall prey to fake news.
So, how can we regulate these privately owned digital platforms? Should there be free speech online? Should media platforms be permitted to censor their users’ speech, and who gets to decide? Unfortunately, these are questions with no clear answers. Ownership of social media sites is a particularly complex topic, as there is no consensus on whether these sites are genuinely public forums. Objectively, social media platforms lack the regulation they require. If you are looking to find out the truth for yourself, Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are both fact-checking websites that are great resources to use when checking the legitimacy of information found online. You can also gain media literacy skills and try reading objective new sources with a skeptical mind. Click here for a helpful website that provides tips and tricks for gaining media literacy skills.
Newton’s third law of motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” — in a similar manner, technology is a crucial part of the world we live in, but the consequences of its rapid development may come back to haunt us if we aren’t literate in the media realm. But, do not despair; with the right mindset and a discerning eye, we can all learn to polish our media literacy skills and keep pace with digital trends.