Critical media literacy to fight fake news

Social media and online media coverage have become especially vital in sharing important news from our respective governments, and this means that fake news is even more dangerous. At EAEA, we feel that digital skills education should also provide all of us with the skills to detect fake news, and what to do if we feel something shared on our social media feeds is not factual. This is always the case, but during a time like this, it is even more important that individuals can recognise fake news and act accordingly. Sharing fake news could lead to people misinterpreting vital information or rules, but also feeds into mass-hysteria and could make people panicked about non-existent threats to their health, their money etc.

Misinformation is false or inaccurate information, which people can spread also with good intentions. Disinformation is false information that is spread deliberately to deceive. In fighting both of these, it’s important that we possess some critical media literacy skills.

How could adults learn critical media literacy skills if they are not attending a course on the topic? To attend a course you would first have to recognise that you need further training on this topic, and not many are perhaps willing to admit that. Health related topics particularly are a common battle ground for false information, because many people are self-proclaimed experts on the topic and everyone has some experience in health issues. If even medical professionals don’t always agree on everything, so how can a person choose whom to believe?

In 2019, EAEA’s member, the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation (KVS) had a project where a group of medical students was trained by journalists in popular science writing skills so that they would be able to write blogs and correct common and false health beliefs. The starting point of the project was that the students know their science, but they need to learn how to convince the general public and use language and arguments that people will understand.

The project sparked the students to start their own association “Vastalääke” (antidote) to continue the fight against false health information spreading in social media. With the help of the KVS staff, a new website was set up, where medical students and professionals continue to publish widely shared blogs about different health topics. The website received such acclaim it was awarded a prize “Best Act of Journalism in 2019” in Finland. The Antidote association also continues to educate people on the topic, “how do you know what kind of health information to believe” and their social media channels are very popular.

Being able to recognise the voracity of online resources is a skill, and one that even many digital natives struggle with. EAEA have comprised a few quick tips to help all of us make better decisions about what we share online during this crisis. We all want our friends and family to be safe and well-informed during these trying times, but it is important that we think before we share, to support our health-workers as well as the physical and financial safety of our loved ones.

Step one: think!

Does this information seem reasonable/likely/believable? While the world feels a lot like a sci-fi novel right now we should still remember that often things that seem ‘too good to be true’ often are. If you’re not sure about the authorship or the content, dig a little deeper before sharing the story with your friends and family.

Step two: the author/source.

While experts and newspapers are not immune from sharing untrue information, they are more likely to have performed some research for you already, and so ensuring that our information comes from a reliable source is a good way to examine its veracity. In most European countries there are also laws and regulations in place to stop major newspapers printing lies, but this is not always the case.

Hoaxers can use government/state headed paper, or mimic the appearance of a respected news site. If online, check that the weblink for this news matches the weblink of other pages from that resource, or consult trusted sources to see if they have the same information. Corroboration is a good way to check that this news story is legitimate, but it is not fool-proof.

Even our politicians are not infallible. If something doesn’t seem quite right, maybe check with other news sources or information channels to see if they agree. This is especially important when sharing tips to stay safe.

Step three: trust your instincts.

If something doesn’t feel right, or you’re not SURE that the information is correct: DON’T share it.

Step four: fact check.

If some of the story seems true, but not ALL of it, it might be worth checking each piece of information. A hoaxer may have hidden lies amongst their facts – making those lies easier to believe, and easier to share with your loved ones.

Step five: is it true, or do I just WANT it to be true?

Posting things just because you agree with them, or would like them to be true is a dangerous motivator for the spread of fake news. While keeping a positive mental attitude is very important right now we all need to be careful that we are not promoting a message that downplays the situation in our respective countries/communities.

Step six: is it true, or am I just SCARED that it is true?

The same applies to sharing scary or shocking information because we are worried that our loved ones aren’t taking strong enough precautions. While finding information on staying healthy and safe is a great way to look after each other right now, sharing scare-mongering news will often raise anxieties, doing much more harm than good. It also could put more pressure on our health services if individuals are believing fake news articles instead of following official information on COVID-19 symptoms and what to do if you believe you are ill. This pressure only makes it harder for them to look after the people who really need their help.

For more detailed plans on how to fact-check information online, try one of these websites on fake news during the COVID-19 crisis.

This article was published as part of a series on the impact of COVID-19 on adult education, and how adult education could help to mitigate the consequences of this global health, economic and social crisis.

Authors: Agatha Devlin & Sari Pohjola, EAEA
Picture: Markus Winkler on Unsplash