How to Think About Misinformation: Reboot’s Approach
In recent years, misinformation has become a significant and thorny problem. It has distorted public discourse, thrown democratic processes into doubt, and led to eruptions of violence around the world.
At Reboot, we didn’t originally set out to confront or attempt to remedy this growing problem. But as we conducted research into critical thinking and developed resources, it became clear that our work would be closely intertwined with issues of misinformation and media literacy.
In fact, at Reboot we believe that the “fake news” crisis is really a crisis of media literacy and critical thinking.
From our research we can draw several broad conclusions about the state of misinformation and disinformation in the world today:
- There is a real crisis of media literacy among a huge swath of the American population. Generally speaking, people get too much of their information from social media and they overestimate their ability to accurately evaluate it.
- There are definite interventions that we can make to shore up people’s media literacy skills, but we need the help of governments, schools, and tech platforms to make an impact.
- Fake news is bigger than the 2020 election. It’s more than red states versus blue states. As we’ve seen from the riot at the Capitol and the impeachment trial, as well as all the misinformation around the coronavirus, fake news is a threat to democratic societies themselves.
Expert Analysis: Helen Lee Bouygues
Reboot President Helen Lee Bouygues is an expert on media literacy, misinformation, how it spreads online, and why typical internet users are susceptible to it.
- Listen to Helen discuss Media Literacy In the Age of Disinformation with The Toronto Star. ‘
- Helen appeared on India Today with journalist Rahul Kanwal to discuss Facebook’s decision to ban former President Donald Trump from the platform.
- Helen discussed the rise of QAnon and its role in the US Capitol riots with ABC News Radio in Australia.
- Helen briefed the Foreign Press Association on the topic of media credibility and consumer credulity.
- Helen spoke with American Public Media’s Marketplace Tech on whether kids should take “Fake News 101.”
A big part of the problem is driven by changes to technology and media. The internet and social media have given bad actors extraordinary tools and access to massive audiences. Many media outlets, driven by the new financial realities of online news, tend to promote more polarizing and less informative content. And social media and internet users, in turn, tend not to be as attuned to the dangers of misinformation because of the viral and distracting nature of the medium.
We believe the best long-term fix is education. Critical thinking can and should be taught, at home and in schools. We must give people the tools and means to be better attuned to the dangers of misinformation.
Media literacy and critical thinking go hand-in-hand. Young people must be taught how to think logically, analyze information, and draw conclusions to make better choices. Critical thinking requires confidence and humility – the confidence to think independently of group pressures, and the humility to acknowledge that we might be wrong or biased.
Similarly, media literacy requires you to read widely, to not rely on any single source for all your information. It requires you to think like a fact checker, to assess a source’s background, and possible bias. These are all hallmarks of good critical thinking – and media literacy.
As a society we need to do far more to teach children and teenagers how to think for themselves, how to evaluate sources. We need to teach them, and ourselves, how to be better critical thinkers to protect ourselves from weak or misleading information.
Below is a sampling of Reboot’s materials, research and information about media literacy, misinformation and how to stay safe online.
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Research & Reports
We took our first look at the “fake news” issue in 2019, with a research report that found misinformation and disinformation were becoming so effective and pervasive that they threatened the “very roots of modern democracy.” Major findings from that report included:
- The fake news crisis is ultimately a crisis of media literacy, and that in the US, schools aren’t doing enough to help students learn good media consumption habits.
- We also learned that simple interventions — like reading an article on how to spot illegitimate sources of information — can help improve these skills.
In early 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold in the U.S., we launched a research project that examined how misinformation and disinformation on social media were making the pandemic worse. That report, called “Going Viral,” found:
- Social media use drove misinformation around COVID-19.
- Frequent social media use was strongly correlated to participants’ beliefs in COVID-19 misinformation. That is to say: The more time people spent on social media, the more likely they were to believe COVID-19 myths.
Published in September, this report on age and misinformation found:
- Users of all ages are susceptible to a wide variety of disinformation techniques, form clickbait to misleading headlines to websites trafficking in misinformation. Again, this stems from a concerning lack of media literacy among average internet users.
- The participants in our study were wildly over-confident in their abilities to identify “fake news” and partisan websites. Only about 1 percent used what we deemed to be “true fact-checking techniques.”