A lot of resources have been invested in getting journalists to do more fact-checking. But increasingly, we’re realising that it is not enough to verify claim after claim. It is not even enough to go after disinformation networks and get hundreds of bot accounts suspended from various social media websites. We also need to boost the immune system of the public to prevent misleading claims from getting shared and reaching wider audiences. But this is not as easy as it sounds.
Here, I want to suggest skills and strategies that can be included in media literacy campaigns and, better still, classrooms.
You can tell media and information literacy is gaining traction among journalists. At the recently concluded Africa Facts Summit held in Mauritius, there were multiple sessions on the topic. A breakaway session on the first day looked at FactCheckHub’s attempt to gamify media literacy education. A panel discussion on the second day featuring professionals from South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe focused on how to combat disinformation through education and media literacy. A glance at the programme also suggests increasing collaboration between fact-checkers and academics, who are trying to inject media literacy courses into school curriculums.
Beyond summits and workshops, various organisations are implementing projects to improve media literacy across Africa and the world. Africa Check has taken literacy campaigns not only to social media but also to schools, both journalism schools and high schools. Every year, Dubawa organises a week-long programme involving the use of volunteers to educate students and the general public. Then there’s FactcheckHub, which is using a trivia game to tackle political misinformation.
Decades of research have gone into moulding media and information literacy education as it is today. I looked at various manuals and curriculum guidelines to understand what the model currently looks like. The aim is to improve critical thinking, build healthy scepticism, and encourage people to be more cautious with how they consume information.
I examined the UNESCO Journalism and Disinformation Handbook, UNESCO Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers, Nigeria’s open university course guide, and other sources. Many of them emphasise the following topics:
- Building trust in the media and professional news organisations as institutions that promote democracy.
- Media functions and ethics.
- Understanding of the information disorder ecosystem, its complexities, the various types, how they spread (on social media), and the motivations behind them.
- Analytical skills pertaining to news phrasing, bias, sources, accuracy, credibility, media stereotypes, funding/ownership, regulation, and so on.
- Awareness around heuristics and cognitive biases.
- Distinguishing facts from other kinds of information and knowledge of open-source intelligence access/verification tools.
- Sources of information and how they vary.
- Digital technology, internet searches, communication tools and networks.
Some institutions are approaching the subject creatively, such as the Ontario Ministry of Education in Canada, which encourages students to produce creative materials (because it empowers them to decode the media around them better), exposes students to alternative viewpoints on controversial topics, and provides them with mathematical and statistical skills. There are also those advocating that we should get into the minds of those sharing disinformation and become familiar with their tricks so that we can be better equipped to fight them.
Outside classroom walls, fact-checking organisations tend to approach media literacy education with the goal of getting the public to think like fact-checkers: to be critical of information received, be less likely to share fake news, and know the tools they can use to expose falsehood.
In a study published in 2021, Africa Check founder Peter Cunliffe-Jones and others proposed six fields of knowledge necessary in the fight against misinformation: knowledge of contexts, knowledge of the creators of false information and their motivations, knowledge of content (separating fact from opinion and truths from lies), knowledge of how false claims are circulated and what drives people to share, knowledge of consumption and why people are susceptible to believing false information, and knowledge of consequences and the dangers posed by mis/disinformation.
Now, while all this is commendable and should be sustained, there are other forms of knowledge I think we should be paying attention to. If we want to empower people so they can be less susceptible to mis/disinformation campaigns, we have to think more creatively. Again, the goal here is to build a habit of healthy scepticism and strengthen people’s defences against misleading narratives. Bear in mind that I am only making an argument here, and the effectiveness of many of these propositions still needs to be studied more deeply.
I can’t prove it, but I believe watching tons of YouTube videos (back when I was an undergraduate) that unveiled the behind-the-scenes tricks behind magic routines did me a world of good. It stretches your mind. Because first, you have just been shown this awesome trick that you think only sorcery can explain. Someone is decapitated. An inanimate object comes to life. Something is made to vanish and reappear elsewhere. The magician appears to have mind-reading abilities, etc. Then the trick is explained and you realise there’s an astonishingly simple explanation that was all along hiding in plain sight.
What I’ll argue this does is that, eventually, the next time you see something you find magically fascinating, your instinct would not be to pin it down to metaphysical causes. Instead, you would say, “There’s probably a simple explanation for this. I just don’t know what it is yet.”
For example, the case of the Guinean woman who tried to convince the world she was praying while standing on water, but it turned out she placed her mat on a table submerged in the shallow depths of the water. Or this pastor who turned water into ‘wine’ in front of an ecstatic audience, but hey, all he needed to do was let some phenolphthalein leak into the bottle, and the colour would change as it reacted to the presence of a base.
Another knowledge people need to have is the subtle effect music has on us. You know what Jordan Peele said? “The difference between comedy and horror is the music.” Think about it for a moment and you’ll come to the same conclusion.
With this realisation, we are forced to ask ourselves: this video we are watching of someone making touching claims intended to persuade us to do something, would it still make sense to us if the soundtrack and sound effects were removed? Would this sitcom still be funny without all the superimposed laughs? Would this prophecy still be believable if it weren’t for the gripping piano sounds?
Once you realise how powerful sounds are, we can see them in all the places they are embedded to secretly influence us and we can take back control.
As part of media literacy education, we should teach people about the trappings of conspiracy theories while giving specific examples. What made them so widespread? And what makes them so wrong?
Some people believe the moon landing did not happen, that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the holocaust is a myth. Hell, there are people who believe the planet is flat. One way to tackle this is not to burst the theory a person believes in but similarly ridiculous ones. Eventually, they might start to question their own beliefs and theories, too.
You can show instances where people mistook Chinese lanterns and space debris for alien spaceships, for example, and that could help build scepticism for misinformation that claims there are first-hand witnesses.
Teach them about the Birds Aren’t Real campaign and how people are prone to fall for even half-baked, laughable conspiracy theories (that are, in fact, practical jokes).
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of philosophy lessons in developing critical thinking skills. If we cannot learn to think properly, then we will fumble in the other aspects of our lives. We should teach students very early about argumentative fallacies and how to interrogate the world from a place of reason. Philosophy should not only be an elective course at the university; aspects of it at least should be included in the curriculum at the basic education level.
People should be empowered to easily identify when others are falsely appealing to pity or authority, or when they are resorting to ad hominem attacks, or when they are drawing a false cause or leaning on a false premise. They should be able to smell a red herring or a loaded question or a hasty generalisation from a mile away. If somebody makes a claim, they should be compelled to ask, “Why should I trust this person?” or “Why should I trust what they say? Is there enough evidence to support the argument?”
They should know not to accept the existence of fairies, even if the claim is coming from no less than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of the world’s greatest fictional detective) or that the government is funding Boko Haram just because a former Central Bank deputy governor said so.
We need more debate in schools. Campuses are places that should be frothing with intellectual conversations and bargaining, but that is often not the case. Debating exposes the audience to multiple narratives and points of view. But it probably has an even greater impact on the debater themself, especially where they did not get to choose what side they would be arguing for.
I recently learnt from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, that in U.S. high schools, student debaters are told to prepare for both sides of the resolution and only know what their actual side is on the day of the contest. At the University of Ibadan, during the famous Jaw War debating tournament, the side of the resolution a debating club gets is randomly selected and speakers are encouraged to prepare for both sides so that they can anticipate their opponents’ arguments and be armed to puncture them. This is the way to go.
Such a culture encourages open-mindedness. You get to debate for a side you don’t even genuinely believe in. Conservatives are forced to argue for the legalisation of same-sex relations and liberals are forced to argue in support of the death penalty. Everyone, in the course of their research, is forced to look into places they would ordinarily not touch with a long pole.
Why would you fight over an artiste’s vest or towel at a concert? Or send them your severed ear.
I suspect that a community where stan culture (extreme fandom) thrives will also be vulnerable to the spread of misinformation. One, whatever claim is made by the celebrity person or group will be taken as the gospel by their fans. Second, it is likely a reflection of weak critical thinking skills, which always provide fertile ground for false claims to thrive.
How do we fight it? I don’t know. Maybe, in extreme cases, it actually points to mental disorders. But we need to encourage people not to see their fellow humans as flawless demigods who are eternally worthy of worship.
You know that thing where you think people from another race look almost the same and you cannot tell one person from another? When I was a child, it was even rumoured that this was true for one race because they all descended from an incestuous family.
Well, the truth is if you are not exposed enough to a particular racial group, you develop this prejudice. It’s called the own-race bias or cross-race effect. As our brains make snap judgments towards our survival, we tend to generalise more about others and feel safer among people we are used to. This can lead to dangerous stereotypes. It means when we receive claims that confirm our prejudice about an out-group, we do not scrutinise it as much as we would for a claim about our own group. Before you know it, inter-tribal clashes. Before you know it, civil war.
The good news is we can fight this conditioning, and one way to do that is to have interactions with a more diverse set of people. Watch more foreign culture movies. Travel. Attend schools with a multiracial student community. Or at least gain awareness of the bias.
One study of Nigeria’s youth service corps that encourages graduates to spend one year in another region of the country found that the participants tend to be more favourably included towards the ethnic group in their host community.
It may not seem like an integral part of media literacy education, but it is important if we want to build a world where people interpret information critically and without prejudice towards a group, on the basis of race or otherwise.
Another important lesson people should know is how clickbaits are used to draw their attention. What are those words used in headlines and marketing campaigns that are sure to drive engagement through the roof and convert URL reach to clicks and site traffic? We find them in the sponsored ad column on news websites. You know:
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- [Pics] 50 Photos of Princess Diana You’ve Never Seen Before
- Artificial Intelligence Courses May Be Cheaper Than You Think
We’ve all seen them. Basically, they use “sensationalist, misleading, withholding, or deceptive content to entice clicks and drive page views”, and they are everywhere. They are also used to fuel the spread of disinformation and it helps that we are aware of how they subconsciously affect us.
Finally — and this may be the most experimental of all my suggestions — we should encourage satirical literacy, meaning the ability to read and write satirical articles.
Satire is often included as one of the forms of misinformation, and this usually is not due to a fault with the genre per se but is because the world is full of satirical illiterates. Take a look at this fact-check I wrote in 2019. Nigeria’s news agency published a report citing a scientific study that claimed that staring at women’s breasts has the effect of prolonging men’s life expectancy. Many local media organisations republished the story. But the article, in fact, originated from a fictional news piece first published in 1997 by Weekly World News, a satirical tabloid in the United States.
First, when people write better satire, it reduces the chances of articles like this getting misinterpreted by well-meaning people and journalists. At Punocracy, for example, when we write news lampoons, besides all the exaggerations and ironies, we deliberately misspell names and use cartoonish images as illustrations to make it clear that the article is satirical.
The second advantage of satirical literacy is people can easily spot sarcasm. In my mind, this means they are capable of sophisticated thought processes that simultaneously give room for multiple interpretations and prospects when consuming information. It means they are cautious consumers of media. And that sounds like a great skill to have as we join hands in the fight against information disorder.