Fight the Misinformation That Threatens Our Democracy: Think Like a Fact Checker | Editorial
How is it possible, you might be wondering, that almost half the country thinks the 2020 election was stolen? Or that the QAnon conspiracy that Barack Obama is part of a baby-eating pedophile cabal is now as popular as some major religions?
How could the best educated nation in the world be full of people who can’t tell fact from fiction?
Fake news travels six times faster than the truth on Twitter, research shows, but while 95% of Americans agree it’s a problem, only 2 in 10 say they’re very concerned they’ve personally spread misinformation, according to a 2021 poll.
Yet misperceptions abound, and the left is not immune: During former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Democrats fell into the trap of unfounded conspiracy theories that Trump had sex dates with prostitutes in Russia. Yet Trump-era Republicans embraced the most dangerous disinformation of all, President Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
The challenge now is for Americans to learn how to sort out the good news from the bad, a skill that seems to be lacking. And the starting point is in our public schools.
“You get information – you don’t just put that information into a story, you verify it. That’s the heart of what we’re asking everyone to do, that’s the heart of media literacy,” said Senator Vin Gopal, chairman of the state education committee. “You don’t just take something as fact, you compare it with other information, you use your brain a bit.”
New Jersey, to its credit, is trying to do something about this problem. As Florida prohibits schools from using the word gay, we charge the other way. A bipartisan bill reintroduced in January would allow them to learn in the classroom how to spot fake news and use critical thinking to assess the veracity of what they read.
A disturbing 2019 Stanford University study of young potential voters found they were easily fooled by what they saw online. More than 96% of high school students failed to perform a simple Google search to reveal that the organization behind a climate change website was funded by fossil fuel companies, for example, and more than half thought that a grainy video on Facebook was “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the United States, even though it was actually shot in Russia.
Interestingly, it was Senator Michael Testa, co-chairman of the Trump campaign in New Jersey, who first approached Senator Shirley Turner with this legislation to combat misinformation among students. “It seems like we were making strange bedfellows in some ways,” said Turner, a Democrat, “but I thought it was a good bill and asked him if I could co- take precedence.”
We agree – we need more than a civics lesson; this should be woven into a K-12 education. Testa told us that his wife, a school librarian, told him about students who rely too much on Internet sources such as Wikipedia; they must “have the skills to use their own critical thinking to decide if the resource they are reviewing is a reliable resource,” he said. Law.
But Trump was a man known for spreading inaccurate information on social media, like his “rigged” election lie that spawned the violent insurgency on Capitol Hill. So how does Testa square this with his role as Trump campaign chairman?
“I mean, I have to be honest with you, I didn’t really follow – I focused on my constituents in Legislative District 1,” he said after a long pause. “I focused on, you know, maybe selfishly, my own re-election in 2021. For me, that election was now two years ago. So I think those of us in New Jersey walked out of the 2020 election.”
But does he believe Trump was spreading disinformation? “I don’t even know why you’re going there,” Testa said. “This is a bill that seems to have bipartisan support, and how it even relates to President Trump is beyond me. Because it doesn’t.
Let’s move on: a good bill is a good bill. The New Jersey Center for Civic Studies at Rutgers already has a PowerPoint presentation that teachers can use on media literacy, a useful starting point. This offers tips for spotting fake news and identifying errors in reasoning, such as red herring: “An intentional diversion to steer the conversation away from a topic someone doesn’t want to discuss.”
This problem, of course, is not limited to children. American adults also need this kind of education.
“What do we do with all the adults who have not taken a media education course or a civic education course? It’s harder,” asks Arlene Gardner at the New Jersey Center for Civic Studies at Rutgers. “Several people have asked us about a civics course for adults. I might suggest Rutgers offer such a course.
Not a bad idea.
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