Over the past few months I have been reading (and seeing) a lot about the dark side of social media. The popular Netflix documentary-drama hybrid The Social Dilemma warns about addictive, exploitative qualities of social media; The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff discusses the potential mental health impacts of social media on university students, and Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino examines how social media plays into personal identity (or, more accurately, self-delusion). There’s also 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain, which extols the benefits of practicing a “tech Shabbat” by eschewing screens once a week and Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, which looks at how social media is getting in the way of human connection. Surely social media isn’t all bad, but when it comes to how we understand, interact with, and share information, it certainly poses some challenges.
Remember the game “broken telephone” where everyone sits in a circle and someone starts off by whispering a phrase in another’s ear? The phrase is repeated by each person in the circle until it finally returns to the original whisperer who then says the final message aloud for the group’s amusement. The more ridiculously off-course the message was taken, the better. Sometimes this is due to someone unintentionally changing the message because they misheard or misunderstood what was – this is analogous to misinformation, which is the unintentional spread of inaccurate information. However, sometimes the message changes because someone in the circle deliberately alters it to be funny, cruel, or cause chaos – this is analogous to disinformation, which is the intentional spread of inaccurate information as a way to manipulate others.
An important part of combatting misinformation and disinformation is thinking critically about information you receive – whether it is on social media or out in the “real world.” Many believe that thinking critically is as simple as considering the opposing viewpoint or doubting everything you come across, but this is not necessarily true. Critical thinking instead involves evaluating information for accuracy, pausing to consider your own biases, doing a bit of reading beyond the headline or article, and looking for other sources (like Snopes.com) that may or may not support the information presented.
COVID-19 is the first pandemic in history in which social media is being used on a massive scale. Social media has helped to keep us informed, productive, and connected throughout the pandemic, however, it has also amplified what the WHO is calling an “infodemic.” Misinformation and disinformation continue to “undermine the global response and jeopardize measures to control the pandemic” (World Health Organization). Clearly, it has never been more critical to combat to spread of false information on social media. It starts with each of us practicing good information sharing and consuming habits, and encouraging friends and family to do the same. The first step is to check the information you see online before you share it.
Media Smart’s Media Literacy Week, which runs Oct. 26 to Nov. 6, is aimed at creating media literacy awareness and encouraging Canadians of all ages to be good digital citizens. Media Smarts has a ton of resources and activities for educators, or really anyone interested in media literary, to browse and learn from. Check them out at MediaSmarts.ca.