Sam Bloomberg-Rissman/Getty Images
Adults may need media literacy even more than students
The debate over how to fight disinformation in the digital age has divided leading experts and raised thorny questions about free speech and truth on the web.
Should Facebook ban political ads, as Twitter has done, or at least stop exempting politicians from its rules barring misinformation? Should social media platforms ban the "microtargeting" that allows politicians to hand pick narrow audiences while evading public scrutiny? Google recently took steps to limit microtargeting, but political players say that will just cut off small donors and hurt challengers.
Such dilemmas point to what may be the only real solution to the disinformation problem: Educating news consumers. The movement to revive civic learning has focused fresh attention on students' media literacy. But what about their parents and grandparents? Older Americans are even worse than students at distinguishing factual news from opinion news, studies have found, and are more likely to repost fraudulent stories. Yet adults have been largely left out of the push to tackle the "upstream" side of the misinformation explosion — the viewers and readers who make false stories "go viral."
That is starting to change. The News Literacy Project, whose digital Checkology curriculum now reaches educators in every state and in 110 countries, is rolling out today a new tool specifically aimed at both students and adults. The group's new mobile app, Informable, trains users how to sort truth from fiction with games that develop fact-checking and other news literacy skills. The app enables the group to expand "beyond the classroom" to reach the general public, NLP announced Monday.
"Unless we give the public the tools to be more discerning consumers and sharers of news and information, we're not going to be able to address the misinformation pandemic that threatens to undermine the country's civic life and our democracy," said NLP Founder and CEO Alan Miller.
Miller noted that all the tools that NLP offers students are also educational for adults. These include the virtual Checkology classroom; a weekly newsletter, The Sift, that turns the most recent viral rumors, hoaxes and conspiracy theories into timely lessons; and online "Get Smart About the News" quizzes and activities that aim to boost news literacy.
Media industry advocates tackling misinformation in politics, including election interference by Russia and other foreign adversaries, cite news consumers as a critical line of defense. PEN America, which champions freedom of expression for writers, has cautioned tech companies against limiting free expression — though the group opposes Facebook's laissez faire stance on political ads.
"Empowering corporations or government as the leaders in solving this problem risks making them the arbiters of truth," argues a March PEN America report titled "Truth on the Ballot." "Instead, that role must lie with the individual who will make the ultimate decision about what to believe or not believe, what to share or not to share."
PEN America's "News Consumers' Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" spells out obligations for the media industry, such as ethical guidelines and prompt corrections, but argues that viewers and readers have duties, too. These include seeking news from a variety of viewpoints, investigating the source and credibility of information, refraining from reposting or spreading false information, and reporting misinformation to platforms that carry it.
Mainstream news outlets can also help by giving readers a better sense of who they are and how they do their work, as The New York Times has done with its "Understanding the Times" series. Such explainers can help restore trust at a time when Americans are increasingly muddled by the growing gap between mainstream news coverage and the alternate reality occupied by conservative media.
Impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill have underscored the parallel universe that divides mainstream news organizations and conservative media sites allied with President Trump. For Trump and his GOP defenders on Capitol Hill, muddying the waters and advancing debunked conspiracy theories has emerged as a key impeachment defense. One recent poll found that almost half (47 percent) of Americans say it's difficult to tell whether the information they hear is true or not.
The problem will only worsen as technology becomes more sophisticated, and artificial intelligence makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish real footage from doctored videos, experts predict. In the future, "it will be impossible to distinguish between real and false," warned Nicco Mele, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, at a misinformation panel at the Annual Conference on Citizenship in October.
Attempts to tackle misinformation are quickly overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, said Mele, who previously headed the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. As quickly as policy makers and tech companies come up with solutions, digital innovations hand those peddling falsehoods new workarounds. Ultimately, defending the truth will be up to news consumers, said Mele. "It's the demand side that we have to address, rather than the supply side."
Carney is a contributing writer.
- What a new civics course for kids can teach adults about bettering ... ›
- High school students struggle to tell what's real online - The Fulcrum ›
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.