A young woman gets her COVID-19 vaccine shot. (CTNewsJunkie Photo)
BARTH KECK

I don’t care if I sound like a broken record. I’ll say it for the umpteenth time: Misinformation is an existential threat!

How could one think otherwise, considering the news that broke last week?

The number of people in Connecticut with COVID-19 continues to increase, affecting predominantly unvaccinated people. Said Dr. Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist at Hartford HealthCare, “This is no longer a pandemic of the people, this is the pandemic of the unvaccinated. It is that clear of a distinction.”

Nationwide, COVID cases are climbing significantly. According to the Associated Press, “Across the U.S., the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases rose over the past two weeks to more than 37,000 on Tuesday, up from less than 13,700 on July 6, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Health officials blame the delta variant and slowing vaccination rates.”

COVID’s impact is so profound that, “[L]ife expectancy in the United States dropped by a year and a half in 2020,” reported the Washington Post. “The decline, which is the largest seen in a single year since World War II, reflects the pandemic’s sustained toll on Americans.”

Just when we thought we had vanquished the coronavirus, it springs back to life. Among the chief culprits? Misinformation.

Dr. Vivek Murthy released [on July 15] the first surgeon general’s advisory of his time serving in the Biden administration, describing the ‘urgent threat’ posed by the rise of false information around COVID-19 – one that continues to put ‘lives at risk’ and prolong the pandemic.”

Specifically, the advisory urges “all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

Sounds eerily reminiscent of the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking, which kicked off an extensive public-information campaign against tobacco. Maybe Dr. Murthy can spearhead a similar campaign to fight misinformation, something I suggested a few months back. At the very least, he can preach the life-saving strategies of detecting misinformation.

You can forget about the tech companies solving the problem.

Facebook employs artificial intelligence (AI) to detect code words and phrases that indicate misinformation and other violations. “But AI is not always good at context and the nuances of language,” explains another AP story.

The peddlers of false news understand this scenario quite well – especially the 12 groups dubbed “The Disinformation Dozen,” responsible for 65% of online anti-vaccine misinformation.

Explains Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “Instead of saying ‘vaccine,’ they may, in a video, hold up the V sign with their fingers and say, ‘If you’re around someone who has been … you know, X might happen to you.’ Or they take something true and distort it, such as falsely linking a famous person’s death to the fact that the celebrity got a vaccine days or weeks earlier.”

The proverbial horse is out of the barn. There is no way, even with advanced technology, for social-media platforms to round up all of the misinformation that has escaped. It’s up to real people with real critical-thinking skills to solve the problem. In other words, media literacy!

Becoming media-literate is not easy; it requires effort. But it’s possible if you follow some basic strategies. I’ve already outlined the strategies I teach in my Media Literacy class, but the News Literacy Project has others. I’ve consolidated the NLP’s seven-step process into three main points to consider whenever you encounter an online article, photo, or meme that piques your interest:

  1. Be honest with yourself and always be aware of your own biases.
  2. Search for more information on the topic to compare content from other sources (“lateral reading”).
  3. Research the source of the content, its author, and any dubious photographs you see (reverse image search).

Again, it takes work. What’s more, it requires a sincere interest in uncovering up-to-date facts from credible sources that just might contradict something you already believe.

On the other hand, you could be just like the 37% of people in a Yahoo News/YouGov survey who believe vaccines pose a greater health risk than COVID-19 itself. I’ll let you do the research to determine which is extraordinarily more dangerous, the vaccine or the virus. (You can start here.)

Meantime, I’ll be busy shouting my anti-misinformation exhortations from the rooftops.

Barth Keck just completed his 30th year as an English teacher and his 15th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him at keckb33@sbcglobal.net.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.