In this case, the good guys are the families of Sandy Hook victims who have endured years of “physical confrontation and harassment, death threats, and a sustained barrage of harassment and verbal assault on social media” thanks to Alex Jones of the internet show Infowars. Specifically, Jones used his platform to spread rumors claiming these grieving families were not grieving families at all, but “crisis actors” paid as part of an elaborate hoax.
On Friday, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ruled that “Jones would have to surrender documents — including letters, memos, emails and text messages — that concern the business plan or marketing strategies of Infowars, the shooting at Sandy Hook, crisis actors, or mass shootings in general.”
In short, the Sandy Hook families have courageously struck a blow against heinous operatives like Jones who use the internet and social media to spread innuendo, conspiracy theories and lies. By extension, these families have made the rest of us winners, too, in the ongoing battle for facts and truth in our new digital existence.
Sadly, today facts seem like some malleable entity, open to the whim of the individual. When we have a president who treats them so every day, what else should we expect? Couple that fact with pervasive social-media platforms encouraging like-minded people to share lies, and we have a societal crisis on our hands.
Hyperbole? Hardly. I’ve watched this phenomenon evolve over the 25 years I’ve been teaching media literacy, and I’ve written about it persistently. Students today — “digital natives” who have never known a world without computer screens and the internet — are exhibiting increasing vulnerability to the siren song of the Googles, Instagrams, and Infowars of their world.
Connecticut’s State Department of Education recognizes this reality, as its Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Advisory Council continues to develop guidelines for incorporation into school curricula.
Such media-literacy education of our young citizens cannot come soon enough.
Spend any amount of time with a teenager. What do you see? A smartphone attached to the hand, 24/7. Ask that same teenager to explain a smartphone’s ability to divulge personal secrets and you’ll get a bewildered look. That’s unfortunate — and dangerous.
“At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from [smartphone] apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information,” according to a New York Times investigation. “Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year.”
A sampling of the smartphone data the Times gathered from one company in 2017 “reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.”
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, issued a similar report in November that “calls on parents and schools to examine the type of gadgets children play with, like smart speakers, wifi-powered toys, and gaming apps, all of which are collecting data on kids.”
Longfield adds that “today’s kids are the most at risk because they have the largest digital footprint in history. Between the Nest cameras watching kids at home, kids’ games that target them with ads, and purchase preferences on Amazon and Google, their data is being harvested at an unprecedented rate.”
Infowars, Google, smartphone apps, social media — all examples of the shiny objects of our digital world that recall Henry David Thoreau’s observation in 1854 about the technology of his world: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” In other words, the technology is in control, not the people using it.
As we forge ever onward into this world of smart gadgets and algorithms that do the thinking for us, we must act right now. We must remember the horror Alex Jones insidiously manufactured through bogus rants on Infowars, and we must recognize that kids are especially at risk. Teachers and parents must become responsible, media-literate consumers themselves, and they must teach children to do the same. The time is now.
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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