We all have been given misinformation from family and friends at one time or another, but sometimes it is hard to tell if something is false or true. And when we know that the information is false, how do we talk to our family and friends about it? Or how can we verify the information is true? There are many organizations that are working on educating people about misinformation. Among these organizations is PEN America: The Freedom to Write. I had the opportunity to interview Nora Benavidez, Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs, and Hannah Waltz, Media Literacy Training Coordinator at PEN America about this important issue.
Why is it so important to educate people about misinformation?
It’s very difficult to address the threat of misinformation if you haven’t yet learned how prevalent it actually is or how it’s affecting society, which is why we always begin our media literacy workshops by explaining why and how we see mis/disinformation as a threat to our democracy, and why the public should care. I would also say it’s important to distinguish between misinformation and disinformation: Misinformation is false content that is shared without the intent to harm; maybe your mom posted something on her Facebook wall in an effort to spread helpful information to her followers. But in reality, the content she posted was originally created as disinformation, false content intentionally created to mislead and harm. By nature, mis and disinformation are designed to deceive people, so when it surfaces in your feed, it won’t necessarily be immediately recognizable. Awareness of the widespread existence of mis/disinformation is the first step; understanding the harm that it enacts on the public is the second.
In our workshops we explore the ways in which the proliferation of false content online undercuts public trust in the press and the foundations of our democracy, but we try and stress solutions—this problem should not inspire hopelessness! At PEN America we believe that access to accurate information is a key pillar of free speech that must be defended, and if we can’t obliterate the existence of false content, then we can at least equip ourselves with the tools needed to spot it and stop it when it surfaces in our feeds. So as vitally important as it is to learn about misinformation, it’s equally important (if not more so!) to know how to combat its erosive effects.
Can you give us an example of how misinformation led to a bad result?
I think some of the most obvious and tangible examples of harm caused by misinformation can be found in the abundance of false cures for coronavirus, like drinking bleach. But we’re also very concerned about the harm caused by mis/disinformation that flies under the radar. For example, we know that bad actors targeted Black voters with disinformation in the 2016 election to discourage them from voting, and we’ve seen similar tactics against Latino voters during this election season. The harm caused here is the quantifiable distrust sown in large populations of the electorate that ultimately discouraged them from participating in the democratic institution of voting. But I think we can go even broader: every instance of mis/disinformation is another drop in the bucket for a distrustful society—I don’t know that I can think of a worse result than that.
Misformation is not just found in social media, television, newspapers, etc, but sometimes it is our own family and friends who are sharing misinformation. What tips can you give our readers on how to talk to family and friends who share misinformation?
You know, this is the one question that we get consistently in our workshops—so much so that we came up with a few helpful tips to engage in conversation with the loved ones in our lives who contribute to its spread. So, if you think something your friend or relative posted or shared in a group message that you think might be misinformation, try following these steps:
- Try to verify that the content is misleading or false before you engage: run a simple Google search or consult a fact-checking website.
- Decide whether or not to comment, after you’ve confirmed the content your friend or family member shared is actually misleading or false. Depending on the level of engagement the post already has, a private message may be more effective in reducing the harm, as well as compassionate, than a public correction.
- Consider the perspective of the person who shared the story, and engage with empathy and avoid shaming.
- Avoid escalation by providing fact-checking tools and having an exit strategy. Remember that it can be hard for people to accept corrections, and it is tough to change attitudes—no matter how well-grounded your comments are.
- Be a resource for others by sharing tips and guides and by equipping yourself with media literacy skills to recognize misinformation.
What do you recommend our readers to do to keep themselves better informed?
There are innumerable strategies that people can employ to stay media literate and well-informed news consumers, so I’ll outline just a few here. First, we always recommend taking control of your experience online by reviewing how and where you consume information—consider the credibility of the sources you refer to and the platforms you use. Next, stay conscious of your emotional reactions to the things you see online, as disinformation outlets thrive on eliciting reactions and engagements, and commit to understanding what you’re seeing: is it an opinion piece? An ad? Breaking news? And finally, before you share, always fact-check! The key to staying better informed is consuming what you see online with a consistent, critical eye, and diversifying your sources.