In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to the spread of not only a deadly virus, but also new conspiracy theories and confusion over evolving scientific advice about how to best protect oneself from the virus. At this moment, we face the intersection of both a global virus pandemic and an infodemic. 5G networks have been falsely linked to the spread of the virus (Ahmed et al., 2020). Others believe the virus is a hoax that is propelled by fear-mongering media (Relman, 2020). The CDC changed its guidance on the necessity of wearing masks to limit transmission (Jingnan, 2020). Social networks have scrambled to label and remove misinformation as they see appropriate (Dwoskin, 2020).
Figure 1. The roots of “fake news”, UNESCO, 2018.
How can we best respond to concerns about our post-truth condition and the spread of misinformation on social media under the pandemic? Many strategies have been proposed or are already underway. Social media sites are revising their policies for moderating content, while there have been some calls for greater government control and enforcement of penalties for the spread of misinformation (Paul, 2020; Kim, 2020). K-12 classrooms are also in the midst of a legislative push to increase media literacy in the classroom, with 14 states having passed legislation that requires media literacy standards (Media Literacy Now, 2020). For example, drawing on the definition by the Center for Media Literacy, Rhode Island initiatives call for students to “access, analyze, evaluate, create, and communicate using a variety of forms, including, but not limited to, print, visual, audio, interactive, and digital texts,” (Recommendations to Ride, p. 4).
For this post, I’d like to focus specifically on media literacy initiatives. Many educators are likely including lessons on this material even where not mandated by legislation. These are important components of addressing the post-truth crisis, but I argue that they need an affirmative approach to critical thinking and a way to address the loss of confidence in traditional media. danah boyd (2018) has raised concerns about media literacy as well:
The field talks about the development of competencies or skills to help people analyze, evaluate, and even create media. Media literacy is imagined to be empowering, enabling individuals to have agency and giving them the tools to help create a democratic society. But fundamentally, it is a form of critical thinking that asks people to doubt what they see. And that makes me nervous.
Figure 2. A screenshot of danah boyd presenting at SxSW EDU 2018.
boyd has good reasons to be nervous. Though anecdotal, and thus limited in nature, conversations with undergraduate students in my Communication Law & Ethics course over the last three years have been eye-opening for me. In my first semester teaching the course, I planned a unit that was designed to teach the type of mainstream critical media literacy skills being developed for the K-12 classrooms. However, I quickly discovered that students were already quite adept at pointing out bias and finding problems with fake news sites and mainstream media alike. On one hand, this sounds like promising results from media literacy initiatives. Yet, over the next several years, I have come to realize that there is something problematic about this very ability to critique that is often honed by media literacy efforts.
Recently, I realized that once students are able to find a way to critique a particular piece of media, they largely see the entire source of that media as itself invalidated. For example, if a student analyzes a news article on CNN and finds that there is some bias in that article, then the whole article loses credibility. Further, the student then feels that all of the articles produced by CNN are now shaded by bias discovered in their analysis of this one article. Trust for institutions that provide information is falling, spurred on by disinformation campaigns that are both domestic and international (see, for example, Sylvia and Moody, 2019). Media literacy is important. However, in teaching primarily critique, this curriculum creates a student who trusts nothing. Emphasis on only critical thinking leaves students with a form of denialism that is correlated with conspiracy thinking. When every source can be rationally critiqued, how does one decide what to believe? In some cases, all that is left is the post-truth approach of what feels correct. Cory Doctorow (2017) articulates this as a distinction between establishment epistemology and alternative-facts epistemology: “We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology.” In other words, we disagree about the very criteria for determining how we can know something.
I argue that in addition to this important critical framework of media literacy, an affirmative pedagogical approach is needed to help students develop epistemological strategies that not only critique but also build coherent worldviews that avoid conspiracy thinking. Exactly how to achieve this is the challenging part, and likely there is no one right answer, but rather a variety of strategies that can work and build off of one another. I’d like to share one approach that I’ve used successfully in my own classroom as a way of demonstrating how we might approach the task at hand.
In the same Communication Law & Ethics course discussed above, I’ve developed an assignment, based on a model for discussion from the Society of Philosophers in America, that has students plan and develop a civically engaged conversation about media ethics with local community members (see: syllabus with assignment information). Due to the pandemic, my Spring 2020 course shifted this in-person conversation online to a session via Zoom. The session on the ethics of censorship tackled issues related to COVID-19 and fake news head-on (see: recording of the session). Although the session looked a little different online that it does when we hold it in person, it still featured significant dialogue between students and community members.
Figure 3. A screenshot of the one-sheet document created by students for the SOPHIA Discussion, p. 1.
Debriefing sessions and student reflection papers written after these events reveal that they are valuable learning opportunities for all involved. Importantly, students must think seriously about how people from different ideologies might respond to the questions that they develop, and how to respond to and manage a conversation respectfully even when they may disagree with opinions being shared. One student reflected:
I have never had this sort of group assignment where we all produce a discussion for the public, and I have never done an assignment covering this many different aspects of my learning career. From public speaking to speech theory to ethical consumerism to communication law to advertising, etc., this project made me think with more than just Communication Law and Ethics in mind.
Conversations and feedback from community members who have participated in these events make it clear that they find these events helpful because they offer an opportunity for inter-generational conversation about important issues facing our society.
The skills required to have these conversations include logic, ethics (with an emphasis on empathy), rhetoric, and interpersonal communication (see Haber, 2020 on critical thinking). We then put these into practice with civic engagement. These conversations enable students to consider ideas from multiple perspectives, evaluate them with nuance, and think carefully about how they are constructing their own world views. In particular, the dialogic aspect of this project helps students better see and understand the gray areas related to complicated issues such as censorship and COVID-19.
One example of this that several students reflected on centered on a conversation about censoring COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In general, participants in the conversation were supportive of initiatives by platforms to censor such conspiracy theory. However, one community member shared that a Cedars-Sinai is actively researching UV light technology for treating viruses. After President Trump suggested during a press conference that we might look to “bringing the light inside the body” as a COVID-19 treatment, videos and accounts related to the Cedars-Sinai research were removed, presumably because the treatments were not yet approved. In other words, in attempting to remove conspiracy theories that were spawned by Trump’s comments, some legitimate in-progress research projects were censored. Students, especially those who were pro-censorship, found this to be a compelling counter-example which opened them to better understanding the risks of censorship, even as related to conspiracy theories.
These conversations allow students and community members alike to better appreciate that even perspectives that can be critiqued are not totally wrong and can add value to one’s understanding. Additionally, feedback from community members has suggested that these are valuable conversations for them of the type they don’t often get to experience in their day-to-day lives. Of course, this model is not a panacea, but rather, I hope it is one tool that can be deployed to help make sense of our post-truth world.
Ahmed, W., Vidal-Alaball, J., Downing J., & Seguí, F. L. (2020). COVID-19 and the 5G conspiracy theory: Social network analysis of Twitter data.” Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(5), e19458. https://doi.org/10.2196/19458.
boyd, d. (2018, March 16). You think you want media literacy… Do you? Medium. https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2.
Doctorow, C. (2017, February 25). Three kinds of propaganda, and what to do about them. Boing Boing. https://boingboing.net/2017/02/25/counternarratives-not-fact-che.html.
Dwoskin, E. (2020. May 29). Twitter’s decision to label Trump’s tweets was two years in the making. Washington Post. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/29/inside-twitter-trump-label/.
Haber, J. (2020). Critical thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Jingnan, H. (2020, April 10). Why there are so many different guidelines for face masks for the public. NPR.org. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/10/829890635/why-there-so-many-different-guidelines-for-face-masks-for-the-public.
Kim, J. (2020. April 2). The need for stricter control of social media by the US government during the COVID-19 epidemic. Voices in Bioethics. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from http://www.voicesinbioethics.net/voices-in-bioethics/2020/4/2/the-need-for-stricter-control-of-social-media-by-the-us-government-during-the-covid-19-epidemic.
Paul, K. (2020, June 5). Zuckerberg: Facebook will review policies after backlash over Trump posts. The Observer. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jun/05/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-trump-policies-review.
Recommendations to ride. (2018). Media Literacy Now Rhode Island. https://mediaeducationlab.com/sites/default/files/final%20ML%20report%20-%20RIDE%20revised.pdf.
Relman, E. (2020. June 16). Mike Pence accuses the media of “fear mongering” over a second wave of Covid-19 in a misleading Wall Street Journal Op-Ed that praises Trump. Business Insider. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/mike-pence-second-wave-coronavirus-wall-street-journal-oped-2020-6.
Sylvia IV, J. J., & Moody, K. (2019). False information narratives: The IRA’s 2016 presidential election Facebook campaign. In I. E. Chiluwa & S. A. Samoilenko (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Deception, Fake News, and Misinformation Online (pp. 326-348). IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-5225-8535-0.
U.S. media literacy policy report 2020. (2020). Media Literacy Now. https://medialiteracynow.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/U.S.-Media-Literacy-Policy-Report-2020.pdf.