How do you kill a conspiracy theory? With media literacy and better critical thinking


The way society consumes news media has changed. Gone are the days when newspapers and network anchors were widely valued and trusted sources of information about current events. Today, social media has an excessive influence on shaping people’s opinions, and partisan platforms allow viewers to choose what is “trustworthy” based on their own preconceived ideas rather than facts, analysis and objective research.

In such an environment, conspiracy theories thrive, objective and knowable facts are often contested and polarization deepens. How does a society begin to push back this dangerous wave of misinformation and pave the way to a shared understanding and collective agreement about what is and isn’t true?

A great place to start is with media literacy, a set of skills that are closely aligned with critical thinking, but clear enough to be their own discipline. As organizations such as Media Literacy Now point out, media literacy in the 21st century means being able to decipher media messages and assess their influence on your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

There is clear evidence that these skills can have a huge impact on people’s ability to identify and debunk the misinformation, disinformation and propaganda they counter in today’s media ecosystem.

This summer, the Reboot Foundation surveyed more than 500 Americans and explored the intersection of conspiracy, scientific knowledge, critical thinking and media literacy. The survey found that about 25 percent of participants were open to believing at least one of the conspiracy theories we tested. People who rely heavily on social media for their information were more likely to believe, as did those who identified as politically conservative.

The survey also examined participants’ exposure to media literacy in school, and found that people who had had some media literacy education were 26 percent. less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Other research supports this. Simply, news literacy gives people a chance to fight against conspiracy believers.

And there is more good news. The Reboot survey found that an overwhelming majority of the public — 84 percent — supported the requirement for media literacy in schools, and 90 percent said they supported the critical thinking requirement in K-12.

As you might guess, the downside is that few people reported learning media literacy in school: only 42 percent said they learned how to analyze science news in high school, and only 38 percent said they thought about media reports there.

Teaching the next generation of media literacy requires an investment of time and resources appropriate to the challenge. Groups like the National Association for Media Literacy Education and Media Literacy Now are doing the hard work to create resources for teachers, partner with schools, and advocate for new laws and regulations that will ensure media literacy is part of education. every child.

“We work at the local, state, and national levels to support advocates and drive policy changes that make media literacy education a priority,” said Erin McNeill, founder and president of Media Literacy Now. “A solid foundation in media literacy is essential for a young person’s health and well-being and for participation in the civic and economic life of our democracy.”

And they see success. In the past two years alone, five states — including Utah, Delaware and Illinois — have adopted a language that mandated their education departments to address media literacy. Membership of the National Association for Media Literacy Education has doubled in the past five years.

Twenty years ago, journalist Linda Ellerbee wrote that “media literacy isn’t just important, it’s absolutely crucial. It will make a difference whether children are an instrument of the mass media or whether the mass media is an instrument that children can use.”

While it’s doubtful that Ms. Ellerbee envisioned our vast and confusing media ecosystem, her words nevertheless resonate today. In the fight against disinformation, media literacy is our best tool. It’s time to put it to work everywhere.


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