Staying Aware in the Misinformation Age

We collegiettes like to say jokingly—okay, maybe not so jokingly—that we couldn’t live without our phones. Have you ever thought about how amazing our smartphones, the Internet, and social media really are though?

Think about it. You have a handheld device that allows you to communicate with people all around the world. This little device gives you access to the entirety of human knowledge and thought. If you’re reading this article, you have more access to information than anyone who has ever existed. This is truly a grand stage in human development and a revolution in how we get and spread news.      

No! No, no, no, no! Bad population, bad! Granted, that’s just one survey, but it's still bewildering that the media has to keep covering anti-vaxxers.  After all, the “link” between autism and vaccines was only supported by a single study that was not only disproven, but disproven so hard that it was retracted as fraud and the author was stripped of his medical license. Study after study has debunked this myth, and yet, it’s so persistent that it came up during the presidential debates

The weird paradox of the Information Age is that, even though we have tremendously increased access to information and education, the nature of the Internet and social media makes it easy to spread misinformation as well. While it’s easy to mock anti-vaxxers or Donald Trump, it’s not just tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists that are to blame. Something about the Internet and social media tricks smart and informed citizens into accepting the virtual equivalent of supermarket tabloids as fact. We live in an age so saturated with information, it’s easy to spot some outrageous headline on your newsfeed, go “WTF?”, and click “share” without bothering to read the article or check the facts. Cracked has a 24-part series proving that many viral news stories, including some you may still remember, are absolute nonsense. Other outlets fighting the good fight include Snopes, which has expanded its coverage of urban legends and those chain mails your racist grandma gets to include viral stories and political fact checks. The Twitter account Saved You a Click also sheds a useful light on how a media landscape that thrives on optimizing clicks is often deliberately misleading.

When it’s this easy to get away with spreading falsehoods, the media will go on doing so whether for profit, a political agenda, or just plain laziness. That little handheld device you carry around 24/7 can be an incredible force for good—use it!

Don’t believe outrageous claims without checking up on them. Conversely, don’t immediately dismiss something just because it contradicts your existing beliefs. Despite what politicians and Reddit say, religion and science can coexist. Even the Pope supports Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Don’t get all your news from one source or viewpoint. Be especially careful not to get news from headlines that are shared on social media. It may seem beneficial, but the very nature of Facebook or Twitter makes it difficult to capture the full nuance of a subject in 140 characters. Also, just be aware that media stories are often incomplete. When late-night comedians get stupid answers to basic questions on the street, they also receive dozens of correct answers that had simply been edited out. Some cherry-picked snarky tweet does not “outrage culture” make. Enjoy this gif of Bill Nye on Dancing with the Stars.