WASHINGTON — As the novel coronavirus wreaks havoc on health systems across the globe, a different sort of virus is following its lead online: misinformation.
Even months after the outbreak began, social media sites buzz with false stories and theories. For example, a “facts about the coronavirus” attributed to UNICEF but in fact a phony list has spread widely on Whatsapp, while cable news channels scrambled to verify if Ibuprofen could worsen symptoms, a claim that emerged through Twitter.
But social media platforms and websites geared towards young people now are making clear efforts to combat misinformation about the novel coronavirus. And groups are trying to teach young people how to check information for authenticity and accuracy through media literacy.
Facebook has made Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on COVID-19 available on newsfeeds along with links to fact-checking sites like Snopes.com pop with high-trafficked news stories and videos. Other mobile applications, like Spotify and TIk-Tok, have added features that link to national and local resources.
For Michelle Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, these changes have been a long time coming. Before the news broke of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 general election via disinformation and trolls, terms like “media literacy” and “digital citizenship” weren’t very popular.
“People were not paying attention about data mining, about privacy, about algorithms…,” Lipkin said, but the change in interest since the coronavirus outbreak has been like “night and day.”
Even as lawmakers and social media sites scramble to make media literacy more accessible on and off platforms, Lipkin finds that there is still more to be done.
“The good news is people are talking about media literacy, the bad news is that isn’t broad understanding about media literacy concepts,” Lipkin said, contending that media literacy can go beyond verification: from civic-engagement to understanding privacy, bias, and search engine optimization.
In a 2019 report by Stanford University History Education group, two-thirds of high school?? students were not able to tell the difference between news stories and ads. Nearly all respondents did not consider how ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility.
Before the coronavirus epidemic, lawmakers at the Capitol had taken notice. Sen. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced legislation that would provide funding for media literacy education programs that teach students skills to identify misinformation online as a way to combat foreign interference campaigns.
But even if federal funding is provided for media literacy programs, it can be up to individual teachers to lead the way in deciding what news or information is worth taking as fact: research shows that political ideologies can change the sources that teachers share with their students as fair and accurate.
One study found that teachers who considered themselves “very conservative” reported that Fox News was credible, while teachers who identified as “liberal” found it least credible. Of the news sources in the survey, BBC, NPR andPBS were he top three most-trusted sources regardless of political leaning.
How prepared are first-time voters for elections likely to be riddled with these misinformation efforts? Experts say utilizing a variety of methods is most effective in meeting this challenge.
For Lipkin, media literacy goes beyond the classroom to the sites that young people use everyday.
“We need to do whatever we can to make the platform’s themselves media literate,” she said, highlighting design changes made by social media platforms that have made information on COVID-19 more accessible to users: fact checking now can do more than keep voters informed, but safe as well.
“When it comes to technology and media. students lives inside the classroom and outside the classrooms are so vastly different,” said Lipkin. “The value of education goes down if they don’t feel like they’re learning the skills they need to succeed in the world.”
The challenges of providing a quality media literacy education are specific to the US. In Europe, where governments have had to contend with Russian disinformation campaigns, it has become an integral part of civic education. In Finland, education on Russian troll armies and spotting deep fakes is part of the standard curriculum. In France, high-school students analyze Twitter posts in government-funded workshops led by journalists.
Nevertheless, some experts believe more should be done still.
“When it comes to education, we are not doing enough,” said Nicolas Tenzer, a French political expert in disinformation. “We have to give to the children…the adults, the basic tools to understand the world. It’s not an issue of right or left.”