Misinformation through the internet continues to be a challenge as unreliable news sources can be difficult to interpret. Credit: Rachel Chaney for the San Antonio Report

A recent opinion column in these pages asserted that the growing lack of dependable local news is what is allowing misinformation about COVID-19 to infect our society, and in turn, mortally damage our democracy. This assertion is correct, but only partially. It’s true local news is slowly dying, which is pushing many news-seekers onto the internet to get their fix. But once online, the challenge people face in an environment of abundant misinformation is how to easily decipher internet fact from internet fiction. These claims are substantiated by wider political science research that underscores the importance of preparing current and future generations with the media literacy skills needed to navigate a new landscape of misinformation. 

I teach undergraduate political science, and my students regularly bemoan the tsunami of fake news they’re inundated with online. “How can I discern between sources, especially during this time where many news sources seem to be desperate in spreading fear and not factual data?” This was a question I received from a former student in relation to a conspiracy theory widely circulated since the pandemic began. These students are members of Generation Z, the most internet-savvy generation yet. If they are struggling with misinformation online, it’s reasonable to view misinformation as a nationwide epidemic, and one that requires immediate attention. 

Why people believe fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories

Research conducted since the 2016 election has revealed that the human brain views accurate, reasonable information as boring compared to hyperbolic, outrageous information, which makes it more memorable. Additionally, it becomes easier to accept information rather than to critically evaluate it. Salacious fiction is nothing new, but the internet has accelerated the rate and quantity by which we can consume it. In particular, conspiracy theories as a type of misinformation have a dangerous hermetic quality, and efforts to dispel them is an ineffective method to combat misinformation.

Our bent toward believing outrageous falsehoods has been compounded by politics becoming a mode of identity sorting. Now, those who identify with certain parties will feel a social and even moral compulsion to believe things they would reject as ridiculous under different circumstances. While local news earns revenue by earning the trust of local residents, internet companies earn revenue through clicks and page views, which incentivizes them to proliferate as much salacious misinformation as their algorithms can churn out. 

Why misinformation threatens democracy

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “an informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” He said this because, in a self-representative government, the people help influence government action. And if citizens cannot agree on a shared set of facts, then debate over policies is not generative. 

Misinformation plays a hand in why our Congress struggles to compromise on legislation. 

According to research, the consequences of a misinformed citizenry may lead to significantly skewed political discourse and therefore influence voters’ political and policy preferences. A study demonstrates how misinformation informs perceptions of foreign-born populations, and is consequently associated with anti-immigrant attitudes and policy preferences. This helps generate hatred and ‘us-versus-them’ mentalities that fuel oppressive policy preferences that subjugate or intimidate certain demographic groups. This has helped raise the stakes of politics far beyond the realm where a majority of voters are willing to compromise. In this current health crisis, the circulation of scientific disinformation has played a role in how governments around the world and individuals themselves have responded to the pandemic. Misinformation is a political weapon.

How we can push back against misinformation

As a professor, I cannot overemphasize the impactful role media literacy training can play in our country’s battle with misinformation. Across the country, we see the adoption of literacy programs to help high school students decipher facts from false information. One high school in California adopted a literacy initiative created by the Stanford History Education Group to help students spot fake news. But it is not only young students that need this training.

Everyone can follow a simple sequence when deciphering fact from fiction online and there are quick guides published by reputable sources to help. Decide if your news source is trusted, and if not, look to see if other trusted news sources are reporting that information in the same way. This is known as lateral reading. There are also nonpartisan fact-checking websites that individuals can utilize to confirm or dispel statements and headlines. Additionally, consult actual experts. Concerning COVID-19, this can include certified epidemiologists, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  And finally, decide if the information you’re viewing logically fits into your understanding of how the world works. If it lands far outside of normal logic or would constitute a violent shift in how science and humans typically act, then your information deserves to be questioned. 

Additionally, a multi-sector approach to combating misinformation is needed. Countries across the world have adopted a variety of methods, including programs for media literacy, legislation addressing the spread of disinformation, and more. According to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment findings, only 14 percent of American students can distinguish fact from opinion. This alarming reality should serve as a wake-up call to us all. While it is unrealistic to expect everyone to read articles anagogically, we must ensure that our citizenry has been given the basic analytical tools to engage with a growing body of misinformation.

As we’ve already seen, an under-informed citizenry allows political space for demagogues to rise and steer the country in wildly different and often dangerous directions. The internet has made our democracy more vulnerable than ever. Media literacy will play a significant role, either through formal education or through the recognition that trafficking in conspiracy theories online is more destructive than most of us appreciate. How well we prepare our students, and equip our communities now will play a significant role in the future iteration of our democracy, if it will remain one. 

Coda Rayo-Garza

Coda Rayo-Garza

Coda Rayo-Garza is a Lecturer of Political Science, Truman National Security Partner, and Term Member of the Council for Foreign Relations.