Last month, the U.S. experienced one of the most horrific acts of violence when a lone gunman took aim at thousands of country music fans at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. In the moments immediately following, news of the rampage took over the media, on air and online. At times like these, many of us turn on the television, but many more of us choose to go to Google or scroll through our social media feeds on Twitter or Facebook to learn more. If someone you knew was in Las Vegas at the time, you may have texted them, sent them a direct message or maybe even gone to the Facebook’s Crisis Response page to see if they marked themselves safe. But most of us probably just wanted to be informed citizens and to begin understanding something that seemed so incomprehensible.
This rush to the web is not new. We’ve seen it many times before when a big world event takes place, good or bad, such as after the death of someone famous, during the Olympics, or at the conclusion of a presidential election. As soon as it does, people begin seeking or sharing information about it. In an age when everyone expects instantaneous access to knowledge, our impatience puts us at risk when we do not take the time to properly vet or verify what we’re seeing or sharing. There are consequently some eager to take advantage of our impulsivity. Cybercriminals will post links to websites purporting to have exclusive photos, only to lead to a malicious site that can potentially install malware on the unsuspecting. In the case of Las Vegas, some began to post inaccurate information online about the gunman’s identity, for allegedly political reasons. When everyone wanted to know “who did this?” an answer was readily available. But when anyone can post anything, everyone else can share it with one tap, and technology platforms like Facebook or Google legitimize it, how do we begin to distinguish between what is true or safe and what is not?
This is the argument for making media literacy – the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act upon the media we engage with – a mandatory skill taught to our children, but also to adults. As parents, we realize early on that we can never control all of the people our kids will encounter in their lives, but we can teach them skills that will help them decide who they can trust and who they can’t. The same holds true with the media they encounter – online or anywhere. We will never be able to control everything they see, but we can give them the tools to identify what is valid or legitimate.
The Waters of the Internet Remain Murky
In the internet’s earliest days, the bar was very high if you wanted to publish information to a mass audience online. You needed to build a website, promote its existence, and have access to web publishing software (or know HTML). Social networks changed everything, giving virtually everyone a voice. Now all you need is internet access and an email address to open an account, giving you a global audience for anything you post. When the cost of keeping a social network alive is borne by advertisers and not the people who use it, broadcasting to large groups becomes easy, but it also creates a fertile ground for bad actors galore.
In the case of the Las Vegas tragedy, several posts appeared shortly after, misidentifying the gunman, which in turn was shared by people who did not necessarily take the time to verify it before sharing it. The algorithms supporting Google’s search engine then took this information and promoted it to people searching for anything about the gunman. Speedy? Yes. Accurate? No. Politically motivated people created the lie, people who wanted to believe it shared it, and technology platforms amplified it.
At the moment, Google and Facebook in particular are getting a lot of criticism heaped on them for their role in further blurring the line between fact and fiction, and rightfully so. They continue to respond by apologizing for their flawed algorithms, tweaking them reactively, but keeping them in place since they are part of the same engine that promotes relevant ads to their users, the lifeblood of their existence. Earlier this year, Google and Facebook made large claims and changes to fight false information. After Las Vegas, it’s clear they are still no closer to fixing the technology behind the problem, and while they should continue to make it a priority, there are things they could do beyond rewriting code to weaken the power of misinformation. However, it’s important to note that they are not the only ones responsible for this. We all are.
Shrink the Audience
As a parent, I often worry about how to teach my kids to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism but not tip completely over into cynicism and negativity toward everything and everyone. On the internet, knowing the source of what they are seeing is a first step in filtering out what’s trustworthy. If a text is from a family member, they more readily accept it than from a number that’s not in their phonebook. Posts on Instagram from friends and celebrities are more accepted than those by complete strangers. But what happens if an unknown source later gets a stamp of approval because it’s promoted by Google or shared by a friend on Facebook? This process of downstream endorsement is the source of the confusion.
Teaching our kids media literacy skills will enable them to learn for themselves how to resist the urge to readily believe and to ask questions first. But how? By doing two things: the first is to pause, to resist the urge to know everything immediately; and the second is to ask the right questions, and accept that everything they see deserves scrutiny. By having patience and asking questions, we can begin to tip the scales against misinformation and lessen its influence.
The Media Literacy Toolbox
Over the last decade, I’ve seen numerous shifts in the way society has embraced and rejected the internet, for better or worse. In response, I’ve also seen corresponding best practices, rules, laws, norms, and skills developed and promoted by technology companies, educators, lawmakers and citizens of the internet. We are in a moment in time when media literacy skills are so crucially lacking and needed as an answer to make sense of the volume and questionable reliability of information swirling through the ether. Yes, Google and Facebook should have stopped people from achieving their goal of misidentifying the Las Vegas perpetrator. But even when they fail in the future, do we all have to buy it?
We’re trying to do our part. Trend Micro has partnered with the National Association for Media Literacy Education on a guide to help parents and all concerned citizens begin to put media literacy into practice immediately. The guide, titled “Building Healthy Relationships with Media: A Parent’s Guide to Media Literacy”, provides a list of seven questions to ask whenever you or your kids encounter media of any kind, especially false information in the news:
1. Why was this made?
2. Who made it?
3. What is missing?
4. How might different people interpret it?
5. How do I know this is true?
6. Who might benefit from the message?
7. Who might be harmed by it?
We believe by encouraging media literacy education, we not only help stop the spread of misinformation, but also help kids develop skills to look at all media through a critical lens. These skills can help them recognize things like scams, deceptive advertising, or bias, enabling them to take more informed action when they see it.
Beyond what each of us individually can do, we also need to act as a community. Information of any kind can spread quickly among online communities, so we can collectively work to help each other filter truth from lies. Media literacy among communities is something we strongly believe in, which is why we’ve partnered with PTO Today to help facilitate this initiative through the Family Tech Talk Night program. This program is free to school communities that want to encourage families to come together to talk about a range of issues related to raising kids to be digitally responsible, including the topic of misinformation on the internet.
We hope the Las Vegas tragedy never happens again, but some big world event is always on the horizon. And with an easily accessible platform, there will be those online who will take advantage of those moments, and many moments in between, toward a selfish, harmful end. As parents and online citizens, while we cannot fully prevent this from happening, we can be proactive about diminishing its impact on us and our kids. We have always had the tools of patience and inquiry at our disposal. There is no better time than now to practice them and make them lifelong habits for us all.