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The Literacy Guild

Opinion: Be aware or Beware — The importance of mindfully consuming information

The dangers of fake news are growing by the day and a large part of this is due to how the spread of information has changed. The way that news is spread today could not be more different from the way it was spread in the past.

Originally, the news was spread orally. The invention of the Gutenberg type prompted an increase in literacy rates for the general populace and so news began to spread in a written form, according to Brewminate.

Today, the news is spread faster and on more platforms than ever before, namely TV and the internet, while the more traditional forms of news circulation do still remain in use.

The dramatic change in the sharing of information has also changed the type and quality of information being spread.

In the past, information was also spread primarily by word of mouth from person to person directly. This is no longer the case.

In the current era, news and information can be spread by anyone and everyone, at any time from anywhere to any other place, and this has made knowing how to evaluate news an even more critical skill to have.

Technology’s evolution has given an unprecedented amount of people a platform with which they can voice whatever it is that they desire, ranging from ideas to opinions to news.

News is generally shared with the positive intent to inform others, but unfortunately, there are those who are taking advantage of the platform they now have to spread the news that causes damage. News is harmful when it misinforms or intentionally deceives its audience for whatever reason.

Though some who spread inaccurate information do it unintentionally out of ignorance, there are many who purposely share information that is false in order to facilitate certain beliefs within the desired audience.

A recent example of disinformation would be President Trump protesting against voting by mail, as reported in the L.A. Times, stating that there would be a high case of voter fraud, though his claims were later proven to be inaccurate by multiple sources. The President’s comments were likely targeting those on the fence about voting by mail in order to persuade them to be against it, which would benefit him.

Not only is it possible for people to spread false information online, but technology has also made it possible for programs, namely bots, to mislead others.

A study reported in Forbes regarding the push to end the shut down in the U.S. found that the majority of comments demanding America to reopen were from Russian bots. The danger in these instances is that there are those who would blindly trust the media they consume without taking the time to see where exactly it is coming from.

Tactics such as these could be used to mislead people into believing that there are more supporters of a harmful opinion than there actually are. As the reach of the internet continues to grow, there will undoubtedly be an increasing number of people seeking to use it in ways that fit their purpose, whether that is by spreading news to inform the public or by spreading news that misleads the public.

For a while, it has been easy to detect fake news because of how fake it looked. It simply did not look like something worth trusting. Fake news is fake because one cannot trust what is being reported, which tends to be because the information being spread is factually incorrect.

What is generally considered “real news” is seen as credible because it comes from a source that a reader is familiar with and trusts to a certain degree, and also because the reported information can be verified, according to NPR.

A major news channel is more likely to be a source of real, reliable information than a random account on social media that has existed for a day. This is because the news channel has the resources to support the information it is presenting whereas, more often than not, the random account does not.

People under the impression that they are immune to fake news are less likely to take the necessary precautions to avoid its reach and are therefore more likely to be affected by it. Fake news can have a domino-like effect. Once one person has fallen victim to it, more and more follow, which can be incredibly harmful to society because it cements misinformation in people’s hearts and minds.

A prime example of the damage fake news can cause can be seen with Anti-Vaxxers.

As stated in the New York Times, rumors and misinformation spread online have been key players in convincing some that their opinions are more valid than proven science. As a result of the Anti-Vaccine movement in the U.S., measles reached emergency levels in America in 2019, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Another incident of fake news causing harm is the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that resulted in a pizza parlor receiving death threats and a man armed with a rifle entering the establishment and pointing their weapon at an employee. This chaos was caused by social media users who, according to TIME, spread ideas that the pizza place was involved in criminal activity without substantial evidence.

It is essential to be able to identify fake news so that one can avoid being misled by inaccurate information.

One of the best ways to confirm a source’s legitimacy is by cross-referencing it. If there are multiple news sites or channels that have the same information, there is a higher chance of their reporting being accurate. Cross-referencing should be done with multiple forms of media rather than just one.

There is always the chance, no matter how reliable a source is, that they are not reporting the full picture, and so in order to get the most perspectives of a situation it is necessary to view accounts on different platforms.

For instance, if news channels were covering a violent protest and a viewer only referenced that for information on protests, then they might be completely unaware of the numerous peaceful protests being reported on social media. Likewise, it is possible that personal accounts have a heavy bias toward a particular perspective, and in that case, it would be worth also checking out a more professional source in order to get a more detailed and neutral report.

An important thing to be aware of is that all writers and all readers have their own biases based on their unique life experiences. A writer’s bias is not always explicitly shown in their writing, but often it will appear at least subtly, for example in their choice of words.

Reports from organizations that are based in research tend to be the most accurate and least biased, but even statistics can be misleading, as explained by TedEd.

There are cases where statistics are reported in a manner intended to cover up what is known as a “lurking variable” and thus are intentionally misleading, according to Mark Liddell.

When searching for news, it is best to search for writers whose articles are written with as little bias as possible. That way, one can form their own opinion rather than blindly sharing in the opinion of someone else.

Our society has evolved into one where it is imperative to be informed but where it is also more difficult to be accurately informed than ever before. Unlike the years before, anyone can choose to share anything, so getting to the source of the information is no easy feat.

When consuming media it is necessary to remember that all perspectives have some source of bias, which is why it is always a good idea to cross-reference information to ensure its accuracy.

As citizens of a global community, we have a duty to be informed so that we can make choices that will positively impact us, our world society and the future.