Fifty years ago, the national networks CBS, ABC and NBC dominated television screens in America and were the primary means for voters to obtain information. Each network, as well as newspapers and radio, first told the facts to their audience, and everyone agreed on the facts. It meant Americans had a common understanding of the truth – which led to the erosion of Democratic and Republican public support for then-President Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation.
But the time for Democrats and Republicans agreeing on facts is over. In the early 1980s, cable news networks emerged. The late 80s and early 90s brought the internet, and Six Degrees became the premier social media platform later in the 90s. With each development, sources of information became more abundant. People were not confined to newspapers and the three news channels to get informed. Instead, we gained the ability to access information anywhere – and with less and less control.
As unmonitored access to information has expanded, misinformation has exploded. Readers, viewers and listeners have become increasingly vulnerable to lies. Consider the aftermath of the 2020 election: Donald Trump took to social media and, with the help of far-right platforms and news networks, at one point persuaded almost 70% of Republicans believe Joe Biden was not duly elected president, according to a poll by Suffolk University and USA Today found. But there is hope that the truth prevails – and our effort begins with providing students with the tools to effectively navigate the information ecosystem and distinguish fact from fiction.
I’m Gen Z, and we’re more connected than any previous generation. Born between 1997 and 2012, members of Generation Z do not know a world without social networks and the Internet. From the day we were born, we instantly became connected to each other virtually. With 97% of 13-17 year olds using at least one of seven social media platforms, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey, Gen Zers are defined by social media because it is deeply embedded in our identity.
Gen Zers don’t just use social media to connect with others – we use it to create change. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Social media has become an essential tool for young people to organize and promote information about racial justice and equality. Using features such as the Instagram story or posting short, digestible videos on TikTok, young people have recognized that social media platforms are one of the most effective ways to quickly and easily convey information to people. others.
However, as savvy as Gen Zers are with social media, we are not immune to the effects of misinformation. While many young people use social media to promote facts, there are just as many who use social media to promote lies. In fact, researchers have found that anti-science and anti-vaccine videos on TikTok have been viewed by people as young as 9 years old. Falling on wrong information while browsing social networks is dangerous, regardless of age.
Misinformation will never die, especially on under-moderated social media platforms and channels such as Fox News, whose end result depends on retaining an audience that believes in its extreme claims. To counter this, we should look to the classroom. For students like me and members of future generations who will spend a lot of time online – and therefore be particularly susceptible to seeing misinformation – information literacy courses could be just what is needed to help young people become better stewards of information.
At their core, information literacy courses would be designed to give students critical thinking skills to analyze information on the Internet: in other words, knowing how to evaluate information, distinguish between a lie and a fact, and perform a fact check. And luckily, it’s a concept that’s happening across the country. Illinois became the first state in the nation to require an information literacy course for high school students starting in the 2022-23 school year. Even better, eight states, including Massachusetts and Florida, are considering bills that would require media literacy. An antidote to misinformation is to understand what it is and how to fight it.
Achieving consensus on fundamental facts is becoming more and more difficult, to the point that democracy has become precarious. It will take everyone on deck to turn the tide, and perhaps the best place to start is simply the classroom – equipping young people with the skills to identify lies whenever they encounter them.
Information literacy courses for students may well be our nation’s best hope of returning to an era of mutually agreed upon truths.