Kristi Weyand
Deputy Editor

Generation Z was raised on the Internet. As a cause and a side effect of the prominence of the Internet and growing technology, 95 percent of the generation has a smartphone, with 55 percent of Gen Z using their phone more than five hours a day, and 26 percent using their phone more than 10 hours a day. During all of these hours, information is constantly bombarding us. From social media feeds to the ads on free games, every moment on our phones is exemplative of the way we curate, or are targeted for, specific information, whether we intend to or not. The frequency information is thrown at us, often claiming a reliable source, has blurred the line between social media and news media. It is more important now than ever to foster a sense of media literacy among the rising generation.

Within the past year, there was a rapid spread of misinformation about COVID-19, elections, and Black Lives Matter protests. Misinformation has a history of peaking during election years, and, with a pandemic leaving more people working from home and spending more time online (the global online content consumption doubled in 2020), 2020 was the perfect storm of a year for allowing misinformation to thrive. Consumers’ use of social media increased 48 percent in 2020, with TikTok having the largest increase among 18 – 24-year-olds, and use of TikTok increased following former President Donald Trump’s attack on the social media platform.

Completely demonizing social media, especially as Trump did, raises its own problem. While these platforms can have a host of issues, from data harvesting and censoring, misinformation is its own demon, as it is a fire fueled primarily by the users and not the platform. In a Pew Research Center study, 50 percent of Americans said that “made-up” news is a very big problem in the country as of 2019. More Americans answered “made-up” news than violent crime, climate change, racism, illegal immigration, terrorism, and sexism. In addition, 68 percent answered that misinformation influences our trust in government institutions, and 54 percent said it lowers our confidence in others. Perhaps there is an awareness about our lack of media literacy in the recognition of the threat misinformation poses to our country (and the world) and ourselves, but that does not make us any less vulnerable to sharing it.

This study also revealed that 60 percent of Americans admitted to and were aware of sharing false information on social media. Granted, these numbers were from 2019 and could have changed since then, but, still, the number is a majority. While Americans were more likely to blame politicians (57 percent) and activist groups (53 percent) than journalists (36 percent) and the general public (26 percent), most felt the majority of the responsibility of “made-up” news fell to the news media (53 percent) compared to the second highest answer of the public (20 percent). If we do not blame journalists, why should responsibility fall to the news media? In this is a general misunderstanding of the fundamental definition of the news media. Let’s be honest, we’ve all heard and even thrown around the phrase “news media,” but how do we define it?

News media includes broadcast (also known as local cable, large networks, and radio), print sources, and the Internet. While there’s no argument that there’s misinformation issues within print and broadcast media, we have a greater understanding of their role within news media and the spread of information. At the risk of sounding like a grandmother shaking her first at some young’uns, things get a little shady on the Internet. Obviously, there are the online versions of reputable news sources (New York Times, LA Times, etc.), but there are also blogs and video sources. While social media is certainly a source of information, it is not part of the news media because it does not specifically curate news and lacks the standards that news sources should have (but often fall short on), wherein lies the problem of media literacy. 

Disregarding social media as a news source is disregarding the future. From infographics to live videos/tweets, there is massive amounts of raw information to be found on these platforms. However, there are also malicious and well-intending individuals who filter this information for their audiences and turn it into misinformation and “made-up” news, which can spread through retweets, reposts, and story shares like wildfire. One 2019 study found that tweets that contained misinformation were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted. Now, let us think about that in 2020 and, now, 2021.

The news media cannot solely hold responsibility for the spread of misinformation and fake news if it is not through their outlets. While certainly they hold some blame (new studies have looked at how conservative media outlets may have worsened the pandemic, though liberal news media has their own issues), at some point, responsibility falls to social media and individuals. We are right to be wary about how social media manages the spread of misinformation, as labels and banners on perceived misinformation can cause social media users to have more faith in those that lack the label. Some platforms remove controversial content all together. It is no secret that TikTok has a censorship issue. While some argue that the Chinese headquarters of ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, has a final say on what gets removed from the platform, others say that the removal of U.S.-based content is decided on purely in the USA. That said, either way, people have accused TikTok of censoring or suppressing political information.

Perhaps the safest way to limit the spread of misinformation is to be aware of misinformation as it presents itself throughout our news and information-gathering habits. As Americans become increasingly aware of the problem misinformation poses — or how the former President’s false cries of “fake news” created misinformation around misinformation — we have become more likely to change the way we interact with news and information. Not all of this is healthy. Some have fact checked news sources, but some have completely reduced the amount of news they get. Among those who label themselves as highly politically aware, 88 percent said that they checked the facts of news stories themselves, compared to 68 percent of those who labeled themselves less politically aware. Yet, when it came to those who reduced the amount of news they got in response to misinformation, 50 percent of the less politically aware took this route, compared to 31 percent of highly politically aware individuals.

While it is problematic to base this on self-labelling of “less” and “highly” politically aware, the fact that those who consider themselves less politically aware were more likely to say they would reduce their news intake creates a redundancy. Of course you are less politically aware if you are reading news or getting information at a lower frequency. Yet, choosing this route in response to not wanting to be susceptible to misinformation stems from a lack of media literacy. Furthermore, although 56 percent of those surveyed said that they thought the “made-up” news problem would get worse in the next five years, those who use social media as a primary source for news and Americans that are 18 – 24 saw the issue as less serious and were less pessimistic about the future of “made-up” news. While I think this is a misconception, media literacy also plays a role beyond misinformation to, hopefully, increase the thoroughness and depth of the information we are receiving.

Literacy is an ugly word with an even uglier history, and that cannot be excluded from this conversation. Literacy, especially in this context, is subjective and does not, nor should, come in a one-size-fits-all definition. People who get their information primarily from broadcast will have different needs for media literacy than those who get news from print sources, social media, or multiple sources. The point of media literacy should not be to just promote big, mainstream news sources, nor should it shame people for lacking the tools (or even desire) to process the sheer amount of information coming at us.

Instead, media literacy should encourage checking sources, asking questions, and being skeptical. We need to know how to examine biases and understand if, and how, they may impact the information presented. Most importantly, we must learn that perceived biases in writing and authors sometimes do not make them any less credible. As in, acknowledging that the sheriff deputy’s words about the mass shooter in Atlanta were damaging and minimized the Anti-Asian racism behind the action is not biased; it is a requirement in the story.

I think media literacy should be a selfish process. We should check for sources, reaffirm the reliability of sources, know when context has been removed, gather news/information from a  wide variety of sources/mediums, and understand the role that biases have in both the way news is produced and how we receive information. This should benefit us and how we understand the news and information constantly bombarding us first and foremost. Media literacy should make it easier for us to know our role in the digestion of news as consumers. We should have a greater awareness of the information/news we are taking in, so we can take greater responsibility for the information we put out. 

If we promote individual media literacy, then we can create a larger sense of community media literacy. We deserve a safe environment to gather information, wherever that may be. Most people who share misinformation may not have the intention of spreading harm (the impact can still not be minimized) and are simply not invested in understanding when/how they are getting their information. The best way to lessen this is to hold ourselves and others accountable in upholding media literacy. 

Featured Image: Courtesy of Niko Vu / The State Press

Author

  • Kristi Weyand is a third-year double-majoring in English and Political Science with a perhaps-too-hopeful plan to pursue a career in journalism. Her time as the Arts & Entertainment Editor has led to her interest in the intersection of entertainment and ideas generally seen as political, inspiring her way-too-many thinkpieces. When she is not writing, she can be found procrastinating by baking, watching bad movies, over-listening to the same music, and crying over succulents she just can’t seem to keep alive.

Kristi Weyand is a third-year double-majoring in English and Political Science with a perhaps-too-hopeful plan to pursue a career in journalism. Her time as the Arts & Entertainment Editor has led to her interest in the intersection of entertainment and ideas generally seen as political, inspiring her way-too-many thinkpieces. When she is not writing, she can be found procrastinating by baking, watching bad movies, over-listening to the same music, and crying over succulents she just can’t seem to keep alive.

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