This is not a Facebook issue — investing in media literacy education is the answer

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As concern grows over the influence social media can have on democracy, it will be tempting for lawmakers to want to regulate platforms like Facebook.

This mindset is shortsighted, though. Instead, lawmakers need to address the underlying problem facing our country — our schools need media literacy education, especially when it comes to social media.  

Facebook’s problems

First Facebook felt the heat for allowing the spread of fake news. Now it’s feeling the pressure after the revelation it allowed Russian-created propaganda ads to spread in the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.

{mosads}Facebook is now looking to make significant, structural changes in the way the company operates. This is because, as Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has surely calculated, if he doesn’t quickly make some monumental changes, congress may do it for him.


Democracy’s problem

While the regulation debate over technology giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter should be had, to act as if regulation would eradicate the real problem is misleading.

If fake news and Russian ads influenced the election, it was not because the majority of civic-minded, media-savvy citizens were truly fooled by the information they were receiving. Let’s call out the real issue here — the country has a major media literacy problem.

While the numbers have slightly fluctuated, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 45 percent of the country has “hardly any” confidence in the news media.

It should be no surprise then that two Yale professors published a study that showed that “the link between analytic thinking and media truth discernment was driven both by a negative correlation between Cognitive Reflection Test and perceptions of fake news accuracy (particularly among Hillary Clinton supporters), and a positive correlation between Cognitive Reflection Test and perceptions of real news accuracy (particularly among Donald Trump supporters).”

In other words, those who believe less in vetting for quality news sources and critically thinking about the information they are taking in were more likely to believe fake news.

This is not a Facebook issue. No amount of regulation is going to fix the problem that almost half of the country does not know to think analytically about the information they are processing. This is a lack of education problem, and the data tells us it is only going to get worse.  

Investing in media literacy education

After a study from Stanford researchers evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources, the researchers described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and “[a] threat to democracy.” It wasn’t just young students either; many high school students couldn’t tell the difference between a real and a fake news source on Facebook.

And with states spending less on education and putting more of an emphasis on standardized tests, why should we hope this will get any better? In fact, it’s just the opposite. As technology advances there will be even more ways to manipulate information.

In 2016, Adobe announced the development of a new program called Voco. Designed for the masses, with this software a person could manipulate an individual’s vocal recordings — meaning you will not be able to trust your own ear. Video alterations of this magnitude are not the far away either.

Education not regulation

If lawmakers are serious about protecting democracy, then they should make sure schools have the financial and personnel resources needed to properly teach media literacy to our youth.

Of course regulation sounds less expensive, right? After all, more resources for teaching media literacy often means more tax dollars.

But if we don’t address this problem now, it will seep into all aspects of our valued way of American life. From politics, to the economy, to national security, nothing will be safe from the negative effects that misinformation brings. And when the media literacy problem gets massive enough, no amount of regulation will be able to correct it.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.”

When you put it that way, investing in media literacy is the price we should all be willing to pay for the next generation.

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and as a public relations practitioner. You can find him on Twitter: @AdamChiara.

Tags Donald Trump Facebook Hillary Clinton Social media Technology

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