The longer I sustain two careers - the one that actually makes me money (teaching high school English), and the passion project that keeps me creatively and imaginatively stimulated (this, right here) - the more I realize how they both require a heightened level of understanding informational nuance and the skills to sift through all the constant stimulation we are blasted with each day. There is no hiding from the media anymore. There is no escape. Not unless we deliberately choose to live off the grid, far away in the woods without access to any technology. Without any access to an outside community.
Should we strive for a total escape? I don't think so. But with the amount of media we are now exposed to - with the sheer volume of news, advice, advertisement, influencing and persuasion we are now met with at all times, we have to decide how to pare back. This amount is simply too much. The human brain has not, and cannot, develop quickly enough to handle it all. Suddenly it becomes not a matter of my career that I must actively change my relationship with media, but rather the fact that I am human. And so are you. We want to connect because we are more disconnected than ever. We are more isolated than ever. And you know what's causing it: we are falling away from one another because of the mass-media-mess we've created. The longer we allow humanity to sink into the media's mindless, careless, senseless nature, the longer it will take us to collectively pull each other out. Of course, being informed and educated has its upsides, but there are obstacles too large to ignore that get in our way of doing this authentically.
Plainly, we're not headed in a good direction. Something has got to give.
Luckily, here's where the two careers have given me a leg up on the situation. I know a thing or two about media literacy. I teach it, and I have to live it. I want you - no, I need you - to understand why you should do the same.
Media literacy, plainly stated, is the ability to access, analyze, create, and reflect on media. And though we commonly use the term "the media" as a catch-all for news, ads, social media, comments, online content, and generally everything..."media" is simply the plural of the word "medium," which is a platform for which information can be created and interpreted. A photo is a medium. A text is a medium. This blog post is a medium. In its simplest terms, media literacy is the ability to understand any given medium. From that understanding, we can respond, reflect, and act accordingly.
That's the goal.
But there are an endless number of problems that can get in the way of this knowledge and understanding being applied effectively, a few of which are increasingly common today. I want to talk about those problems, because without acknowledging them, we cannot make sense of the information being constantly force-fed to us. And without making sense of it, we are powerless to it. Let's not let this continue.
1. Misinformation & disinformation
Did you know these were two different things? Do you know the difference? It may seem like a subtle or meaningless nuance to distinguish these very similar words, but knowing how they look and play a role in our media consumption can make a huge impact in realizing that we may be getting lead on, tricked, or fully lied to.
Misinformation is when there are fragments, holes, or mistakes in a story. This is not done with intention; often times misinformation happens with breaking news or events that are recorded and being talked about in live-time. Perhaps the reporter is stating a number of injuries that have been reported, but later on, we find that the number is actually much higher. This is misinformation - the reporter didn't intentionally lie, but their information was incorrect, yet still spread around. Credible sources will fix their mistakes and take great care in damage control. They will revisit the story and correct the information. Hopefully their consumers and viewers will see their corrections.
What more often happens, unfortunately, is that the incorrect information gets spread around like wildfire, and the consumers will never follow up (which brings me to my next point, but we'll get to that). Misinformation remains, and the story changes and warps like a game of telephone. One person heard 75 people were injured, but their friend heard 750. Maybe it doesn't really matter. But for much of what we absorb, it really, really does.
Then there's disinformation, which is a falsity spread intentionally. Whether it's warped data, a great exaggeration, a lie about someone, or a masking of the whole truth, the person or people publishing the information will not come back to correct it (unless they get in deep trouble for spreading lies. A rarity). It is made to infuriate. It is made to rile up a crowd and start arguments. Disinformation is the true evil of the media, but it's difficult to put a finger on unless we are diligent when consuming it. Unless we are already quite well-informed about the topic. No offense to you, but again, it's a rarity.
In cases such as the Palestinian blackout, or the Israel-Palestine war in general, there are great amounts of both mis- and dis-information. I have been extremely hesitant to repost or respond to any information coming up on my Instagram about it, because it's incredibly difficult to trust most sources. Even those with the best intentions may have the story wrong. How can we know what's going on in the darkness of Palestine? With so much bias and emotion around the questions of war, genocide, exile, and active bombings, how can we possibly know who to trust as distant, privileged Americans?
Thankfully, there is a small light here. We generally know how to sniff out strong bias, and we generally know to avoid these sources. Though in cases of war it is extremely difficult (and for some, perhaps even unethical) to present information without emotion, it is still a beneficial practice to keep an eye out for heightened emotions in media. News providers that keep their language leveled and non-hostile are generally more trustworthy and less biased. If we want credible information, or the most credible we can get, we should not be looking to what our friends post on social media. We love them, but their emotions and bias get in the way. They may be posting old, outdated, elsewhere-corrected information and not be aware of it. This is a lens we must wear in practicing media literacy.
2. A lack of presence
The overall issue with all the posting and re-sharing we do is that we rarely look further into it. We rarely check the sources, we rarely look for opposition because we want to feel like we're right, and even when we are faced with other opinions, we largely ignore them. This is called confirmation bias, which states that we tend to seek out information that we already agree with. And now that we have the great Almighty Algorithm controlling what we see and interact with to a wide degree, we have a lot less ability to fight that confirmation bias. We're often unaware that there are other perspectives we're not seeing.
How do we combat this? It comes down to presence, with an understanding that we are intentionally being led somewhere we have very little choice in. I imagine the algorithms of the internet as super-creepy tour guides who blindfold their clients and usher them around like sheep. When we mindlessly scroll, and leave our search histories untouched, and continue to dig into thought-loops and echo chambers, we find ourselves eventually abandoned in the middle of nowhere. We must be present when absorbing constant media. We must still be able to reach back into our mind to ask questions as we go along: Where is this coming from? Why am I receiving it? Where have I seen this before? Is it important enough that I'll remember it later? We must be able to still feel our bodies when they've had enough. Have you ever scrolled for so long that your eyes start blurring, or you feel physically uncomfortable from sitting in one position the entire time? That's an immediate signal that it's time to log off.
And remember: "I saw on TikTok the other day" is not a source. When we speak about where we've gotten our information, it matters that we're honest about it. It matters that we take a few extra seconds to think about where it truly originated, and whether it's true at all. "It's just a speculation" or "I just heard, I don't know for sure" simply doesn't cut it anymore. There is too much at stake. But, as with most of the overarching issue of constant media consumption, the more we allow ourselves and our young people access to the unending cycle, the less capacity we have for presence and critical thought. We become addicted to the short-form, the five-second video and the 140-character post. Nothing holds our attention long enough for us to really consider what is being said, but we still subconsciously hold onto it. This is the pattern we're unaware of until we're in too deep.
3. A lack of education
Now this is where I get jazzed about this conversation, because I genuinely love teaching the skills necessary to avoid "getting got" by the media to my students. My favorite units are on bias, fallacy, mis- and dis-information, and how to spot all of it. We watch the Crash Course videos on media literacy and I have students look into their social media accounts for "fallacies in the wild." If we have time, we'll often watch The Social Dilemma at the end of the quarter, too.
Not to brag on myself, but the downside is that I don't believe enough educators are doing the same. Part of the standardized curriculum for English classes in my state is to learn media literacy, but how far that extends is pretty varied. I find that my kids understand biases - even confirmation biases of their own - but they can't quite grasp onto how much of it they see or hold themselves. They don't yet recognize how entrenched they are in information overload. They have the highest rates of anxiety, depression, and general stress we've ever seen, but they don't understand that this is why.
So I have taken it upon myself to show them.
When scary things happen in the world (all the time), we have a choice in how to interact with them. We have a choice in who to trust. These are the things kids need to learn, and in all honesty, should be required to learn as soon as they're granted access. They need to be skeptical - not of people, but of what people create online. I think my generation saw this to a degree. I was always taught to never put my personal information out there and to be wary of pop-ups that told me I'd won an iPhone. I knew from an early age how to spot spam emails and fake profiles. But that was the early internet; so much has changed in fifteen years. I was exposed to celebrity gossip, not images of child corpses buried in rubble. In allowing young people unbridled access to constant information on social media and beyond, without the tools necessary to parse through the horrors they're seeing, it's no wonder they have such serious and widespread mental health issues. They need tools. They need the lenses that they'll never be able to take off again once they've put them on. And with it being called "media literacy," the average English classroom in 2023 needs to provide it all. It's actually a blessing for me; after a year and some of chaos, stress, and wondering if this is where I'm meant to be, I've found a purpose in this career again. This is where I have a critical responsibility. And I'm happy to oblige.
I have hope, for a few reasons. As just mentioned, the internet as we know it has only existed for fifteen to twenty years. The 24-hour news cycle began perhaps only a bit before, in the early 90's. This shit is not old yet, and it's not set in its ways. I believe there is still time to turn it around and make the internet a fun place to be again. But this will only happen with careful intent and diligence. It will only happen if the vast majority of its users become media literate. That starts with our young people who are the most vulnerable, due to their constant association. It then needs to extend, quickly, to our older generations who are perhaps not as equipped and entrenched in the media, but who also have fewer technological and literary skills to avoid deception. Those of us in the middle - I'm thinking millennials and early Gen Z's - are the most apt to teach media literacy. We have an advantage in knowing how it all works, but also remembering what it was like before it got weird. We can reach all ends of the spectrum.
And we need to.
What happens if we don't? I fear that one day, we will assume that the problem is too large and give up altogether. Even more so, I fear that disinformation will become the norm, too powerfully deceptive for us to distinguish. For as long as we allow ourselves to doom scroll without limits, without knowing how to navigate and think critically through what we're seeing, we will increase the chances of this becoming reality. We will be too far gone - too far from one another.
Media literacy is about reconnection. It's about seeing our humanity clearly again, and believing once again that we are inherently good. If we value true human relationships (and that doesn't exclude online relationships), we need to practice this for the benefit of ourselves and our ties to other humans. The divisiveness being created is not accidental, but it can't be mended if we don't realize how frequently we feed into it. So - start paying attention. Recognize when your body and mind have had enough. Think about what you say and share before you click. It takes practice, and a lot more care, but it's really that simple.
Need more resources? Here are my faves: