While Connecticut legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy were busy with budget battles this summer, other news from Hartford slipped through the cracks.
Public Act No. 17-67, for example, was signed into law on June 27. The bill establishes an advisory council within the Department of Education to recommend “best practices relating to instruction in digital citizenship, Internet safety, and media literacy.”
Music to the ears of this media literacy teacher, and it couldn’t come at a better time.
The need for responsible “digital citizenship” has never been greater. How can our representative democracy function if its citizens are uninformed, ill-informed, or misinformed?
It’s a situation brewing for decades, according to author Kurt Andersen in an excerpt from his forthcoming book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire — A 500-Year History.
“The great unbalancing and descent into full Fantasyland was the product of two momentous changes,” writes Andersen. “The first was a profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the ’60s; since then, Americans have had a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.”
“The second change was the onset of the new era of information. Digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions of the ideological and religious and scientific kinds. Among the web’s one billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and ‘facts’ to support them.”
The topics debated in this Fantasyland are as numerous as they are mind-numbing: climate change, illegal voters, evolution — you name it, there are “alternative facts” to support every claim. This new reality, however, does not bode well for a country’s long-term viability — especially when that country’s president is a nonstop promoter of unreality.
The antidote is a vigilant and unbiased pursuit of knowledge. That’s why I continually espouse the “ideology of critical thinking.” It’s time to revisit this time-tested approach. Here’s the plan, whittled down to three main ideas:
1. Be as objective and nonpartisan as possible.
This admittedly challenging and idealistic strategy is nonetheless essential for media literacy.
Human beings are emotional creatures, intuitively craving affirmation. Confirmation bias — the tendency to seek only information supporting your opinion — is a strong persuader. Thus, verifiable facts often don’t matter when they counter someone’s viewpoint.
“In a series of experiments by Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan and University of Exeter professor Jason Reifler, the researchers identified a related factor they call the backfire effect ‘in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.’ Why? ‘Because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.’”
Until you willingly play “devil’s advocate,” in other words, you cannot be media-literate.
2. Beware convenient categories and deceptive language.
Humans like categories because they bring order to difficult concepts. But they can also be a trap, especially when applied to people.
“When we split people up into such dichotomous categories, the large variation within each category is minimized whereas differences between these categories are exaggerated,” writes psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. “Truth is, every single person on this planet has their own unique combination of traits and life experiences. While this isn’t true of objects, such as rocks, books, and television sets, it’s true of humans. Which is why we must be very, very careful when we allow labels to get in the way of our perceptions of reality.”
As the U.S. increasingly polarizes, words like “liberal” and “conservative” pollute people’s understanding of the issues — they can’t get past the labels. Same thing goes for terms like “fake news.”
Donald Trump can call news he doesn’t like “fake,” but that doesn’t make it so. Fake news, by definition, looks like news but includes no authentic sources — that is, it entails deliberately fictional accounts posing as news. It is “Trump’s use, or more precisely misuse, of the phrase ‘fake news,’ [that] drains meaning from the phrase and obscures a real and pernicious phenomenon,” according to US News & World Report. “By delegitimizing the media’s role of watchdog and arbiter of facts, Trump creates space for his own alternate reality and the legions of lies and mistruths he persistently pushes.”
Words and labels matter. Trump’s incessant use of the term “fake news” proves the point.
3. Read a variety of news stories from a variety of outlets.
The primary news source for many is social media. Unfortunately, social-media algorithms tailor individual news feeds to each subscriber’s preference — hardly a complete picture. So broaden your horizons. Survey a variety of news media, particularly those that employ journalists who conduct original reporting with multiple sources.
And yes, READ! Go beyond headlines and highlighted quotes. Click on linked sources for further verification. In short, be a self-reliant news consumer.
Connecticut’s fresh focus on media literacy in schools is a good thing. But it won’t have much effect unless adults do their part, too. We all stand to benefit. And that’s not fake news.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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