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Op-Ed: Idaho needs media literacy to combat COVID-19 misinformation

by SETH ASHLEY and BRIAN STONE/Idaho Capital Sun
| October 3, 2021 1:00 AM

With Idaho recently announcing crisis standards of care in hospitals across the state, we are seeing first-hand the effects of myths, misunderstandings, and misinformation about COVID-19. In today’s media environment, Idahoans are bombarded from every direction with contradictory claims about COVID-19, and it can be challenging to disentangle the truths from the falsehoods.

Much like inoculation against a harmful virus, media literacy — the ability to analyze and evaluate media messages — can help us stay afloat in this sea of misinformation. But to be media literate, we all need knowledge about how our media system often prioritizes engagement over accuracy and how it takes advantage of our basic human tendencies to stick with our own kind and to avoid effortful thinking.

For most people, working through conflicting information is just not much fun and does not make it to the top of our to-do lists. Making careful judgments requires the painful tradeoff of slowing down and investing mental effort. Unfortunately, our brains evolved to take the easy route, to listen to our intuition and rely on cognitive shortcuts that are usually “good enough” to guide our decisions.

But those shortcuts also leave us all susceptible to common errors in our thinking. Our confirmation bias means we’re more likely to believe new information is true when it fits with our preexisting beliefs.

Studies also show that merely being exposed to false news stories makes those stories feel more believable and true. This is particularly problematic since scientists have shown that misinformation often spreads faster and wider on social media than accurate information. As Jonathan Swift once wrote: “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

The online attention economy knows all of this. Algorithms working behind the scenes when you visit sites like Facebook and Google prioritize content that will keep your eyeballs on the screen and increase the profitability of these giant corporations. It’s easy to ignore the well documented harmful effects of social media and to forget that these are not benign public utilities.

Your information ecosystem is not neutral.

The algorithms that select which content to display on your screen take on a life of their own when they start gathering data about you and using it to tailor your online experience. In some ways, these algorithms know us better than we know ourselves.

This makes it easier than ever for bad actors to manipulate us through eye-catching propaganda that satisfies our deep desire to be part of a group and rewards our hunger for validation. You can mess with the algorithms and avoid being misinformed by simply cutting back on your liking and sharing, or go out of your way to follow a range of reliable sources, especially ones you might not agree with.

Traditional news outlets are certainly imperfect, but print and digital newspapers and noncommercial public media outlets are still your best bet for reliable information. Organizations like these pay trained journalists to gather information and verify facts, not to advance a political agenda.

Instead, their aim is to get to the closest possible version of the truth and to help us understand what’s happening across our society. They follow industry-standard codes of ethics and hold themselves accountable when they make a mistake, unlike purveyors of misinformation who cherry-pick information to serve their narrow ideological interests.

Anecdotes about rare breakthrough cases and uncommon vaccine side effects can understandably raise questions, but it’s more important to look at the overall evidence. Informed citizens know that vaccines and masks are the best ways to protect against the virus and to help put an end to the pandemic — even if you’ve already tested positive. “Doing your own research” is fine, but it’s no substitute for the meticulous work of experts who are doing their best to learn everything they can about COVID-19 and are updating us when their knowledge grows and as situations change.

Find your way to reliable information by asking a few basic media literacy questions: Who created this information and why? Who is the target audience for this and am I part of it? Is the information designed to provoke a certain reaction? Is it working? What information is missing, and what questions are unanswered? Does this help support the information needs of the community or does it seek to promote a self-serving partisan agenda?

Above all, simply slow down. Avoid making quick judgments based on emotional reactions. If something feels true, it could be, but check it out to be sure.

Reminding social media users to stop and think about the accuracy of a news item makes them less likely to share misinformation online. Be consistently skeptical, not just with information you don’t like. Don’t repeat or amplify misinformation by sharing it. Instead, share evidence-based information from reliable sources.

You can also encourage others to practice the same good information hygiene practices. If friends and family are struggling, listen with empathy to their concerns and ask open-ended questions to help them see if they are being misled.

We all need to remember that misinformation can cost lives and perpetuate major social disruptions, but working together, we can fight misinformation and help bring this pandemic to an end.

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Seth Ashley is a professor of journalism and media studies in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, where he also serves as faculty adviser for student media. He is the author of "News Literacy and Democracy," and his research focuses on media literacy, media sociology and communication policy. He received his Ph.D. and MA from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a designer and technician for film, theater and music productions.

Brian Stone is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Boise State University. He received a master's degree in neuroscience and behavior and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia. He specializes in cognitive psychology, including perception, learning, and the study of how people process information. Brian grew up in the Pacific Northwest and in his spare time enjoys hiking, swimming, camping, and paddleboarding Idaho's beautiful outdoors.

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Brian Stone