News Literacy Should Be a Mandatory Part of Education

In the 2016 United States presidential election false news took center stage in a completely unprecedented fashion. Falsified news stories and propaganda have existed since the beginning of the printing press, and likely even before that, but what became new was the ability for bad actors to publish outright lies, then use tools build by social media conglomerates (intended to sell you just the right thing) to plant misinformation on a highly targeted and distributed fashion.

The same tools that allowed brands like Warby Parker and Glossier to target the exact demographic of purchasers they think will most likely buy their goods (young urbanites with newly disposable income) allowed foreign governments, white nationalists, and disingenuous political actors to target who they thought would most likely carry out their strategies.

A recent survey conducted by Statista states that 41% of adults in the United States get their news from Facebook and social media, daily. According to the same source, 52% also believe that online news sites regularly report false stories regularly, and that 64% believe that false news causes a great deal of confusion. By Facebook’s own numbers, 126 million American Facebook users were exposed to Russian propaganda in the 2016 election.

To combat the deeply toxic nature of false news, platforms need to take an editorial stand, like Facebook did earlier this week by banning white nationalist and separatist content off of their platforms. Even further, we need to harden ourselves from false news, through the education system, and better teach our students news literacy.

News literacy, as defined by the Center for News Literacy, is “designed to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to judge the reliability and credibility of information, whether it comes via print, television or the Internet. This is a particularly important skill in the Digital Age, as everyone struggles to deal with information overload and the difficulty in determining the authenticity of reports.”

If schools were to incorporate lessons of news literacy into their curriculum, it would equip their graduates with the ability to think critically about the information that they receive, and where it’s coming from. In an increasingly digitized world where remote working and freelancing are becoming standards of practice, being able to give a critical eye to what you are being told gives one the ability to discern between potential propaganda and actual fact.

In our current distributed, internet, information overload-scape that we live in, even non-political actors are incentivized to create inauthentic news stories. This might sound less scary than what we see when content is made maliciously, but if counted is incentivized to be made solely for what gets clicks and not what is accurate, then what is at stake is an information landscape where fact and fiction are completely indiscernible.

In the book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts by Jill Abramson, we are introduced to a case study as to how false news stories can be produced solely for the purposes of profit, and how they can have real world outcomes. “Across the world, in the small Macedonian town of Veles, a legion of young adult online marketers have developed a vibrant local industry of pro-Trump fake news websites with thriving audiences that they had built on Facebook into lucrative ventures.”

The book goes on to tell us that, “Silverman would later visit Veles and meet the internet marketing guru who had instructed the kids. He told the Buzzfeed reporter that these were his stand out students and that he was proud of them. He had not taught them to explicitly publish fake news, but rather to do what works… Some of their post were getting nearly half a million interactions on Facebook, meaning they had appeared in the News Feeds of millions of users.”

The point of the excerpt concludes with, “‘The beautiful thing about the Macedonians,’ Silverman explained, ‘is that they are the perfect expression of the social media publishing economy.’ Teenagers concocting fake news stories could make as much as $10,000 a month from the advertising they attracted. The Macedonians were succeeding because they gauged the desires of their readership and addressed them directly.”

Even if platforms like Google and Facebook were able to clean up the worst kinds of false news stories, there will still be a market for people who need a paycheck to create websites that publish content that is at the very least click-baity, or at the very worse toxic and intentionally divisive. Because these types of disingenuous stories will likely continue to exist, we need to better prepare how to spot and ignore them.

There are nonprofits and organizations working on this solution now, but as with everything, progress only goes as fast as it can be funded. Recently, the News Literacy Project received a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation to help the organization expand its efforts. The organization’s programs have reached 122,000 students nationally. Google and Facebook have both announced plans to spend $300 million to support journalism. The problem, however, is that tech companies like Google and Facebook have damaged journalism to the tune of billions of dollars, not millions. If the false news and news illiteracy problem is really going to get solved, those numbers are going to have to swell.

On some level, YouTube is getting ahead of this problem by providing informational context below videos about climate change (a hotbed for false news) hosted on its site by pointing viewers towards Wikipedia. On the other end, the site is mired in its own controversy surrounding algorithmic rabbit holes recommending conspiracy theory videos to users, causing some to believe them as fact. The problem of news illiteracy is a massive undertaking that we as a society will be reckoning with for the foreseeable future, but if our education system could pick up where tech companies lack, we will at least be able to defend ourselves.

The Kind Feed: How Social Media Can Be Repurposed for Good

I shall pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People


Social media has become a source of anxiety for many users. Today’s social media has become a surrogate platform for news, activism, debate, and the sharing of ideas and experiences. Second to those newfound purposes, it’s a platform for social connection. Joining a site under the pretense of social connection and falling into the habit of using it for other purposes takes its toll.

What makes most social media sites less-friendly from social connection in this day is, in part, the lack of kindness expressed by users. People are taking their aggression and bad moods out on their social media feeds, whether it be in the form of: heated arguments, pointing out negative traits on public posts, or seeking to disagree with the provocative (or otherwise) posts that their friends make. This is turning what should be a fun, friendly environment into a platform filled with toxicity and negativity.

To be fair, it’s not exclusively the fault of the users. There are other reasons why negativity has found such a home in social media. But not being to blame isn’t enough to protect users from the effects that this influx of negativity causes. Frankly, people are losing their sense of empathy and their ability to see the person on the other screen as a living, breathing human being. People are being affected from the small scale in their personal daily lives, to the large scale on a societal level. With 2.46 billion users across all popular platforms of social media, that’s a pretty large wing span with which to spread a wave of negativity. It has to change.

Hope isn’t lost. The positivity movement is a strong one. A light has been cast on toxic practices on social media, and people aren’t standing for it anymore. There are benefits to spreading kindness on social media, not the least of which is undoing some of the toxicity that has previously been spread.

Source:  Flickr

Source: Flickr

The Personal Level

On a smaller scale, social media affects users in a major way. People are spending massive amounts of time on their phones; this time is measured in hours where a slightly more than a decade ago it was measured in minutes. However, the time spent on social media and on our phones is a topic for another day- the focus here is about what people can do with social media by being kind, and how it can benefit them in return.

The draw to social media is a simple and fruitful one. It allows one to keep a connection alive with people who otherwise may have easily drifted away, such as college friends, high school buddies, coworkers from a former job, distant relatives, and the like. It also offers an easy approach to making new friends with a wealth of groups for just about any topic or hobby under the sun. Simply put, it’s easy to keep these connections alive without needing to actually put effort forth on an individual basis. This might sound negative, but the result is that people are able to keep a larger community of people around them than they used to.

Beyond keeping connections and making new ones, social media gives people a stage with which to stand on and share their lives with an audience… only, unlike an actor, they get to choose their audience and thus don’t need to share fiction. It’s also a place for things like: new recipes, local places, the opening of new cafes or restaurants, cute videos, art, and more. Seeing these things on a feed give little bursts of happiness and intrigue right at one’s finger tips!

Social media also provides a break from the fast pace of real life. It’s a way to press pause on the world’s happenings all around. In a way, it’s an escape. But unlike reading or video games, it’s an escape into the real-world. The virtual real-world. Things are more real than in a novel on social media even though the happenings are detached from one’s own life. People can breathe. They can read what their friends are up to, the updates on loved ones’ lives, and see what people are sharing and talking about. It’s a way to keep up with the world while pressing pause on one’s own. This break helps relieve stress.

However, that break can also cause stress if people aren’t using it to spread positivity and kindness. People have to be mindful of how they’re spending their time on social media in order to put the kindness out that they want to receive. For example, scrolling past an update of a friend getting a new job or a relationship announcement or the like without engaging leaves friends wanting for that friendly connection. So, when it comes the time for that person to post good news, the wanting friend doesn’t feel inclined to engage. Social media, in this way, is give and take. Like any gift, giving and receiving feels good. Missing those opportunities diminishes the experience as a whole.

That same idea of giving and taking works with what people choose to share. If one only shares bad news or politically charged posts, it’s going to warn others off engaging. This makes social media feel competitive and stressful and not at all like a “break”. Putting kindness and good news and lighthearted posts out into the social sphere feels like giving a gift and doesn’t generate any stress or anxiety.

Social media is recreational. It’s supposed to be a positive experience, it’s supposed to feel good. It provides people with a break from their hectic lives and opens up a chance to have fun and give or take a smile. Beyond that, social media has an even greater power when it’s not used for negativity.


The Larger Scale

Without needing a passport, users can travel the world. Social media doesn’t require a pass through customs or a long flight. It doesn’t require exhausted research and years of study. With social media, users can connect to their communities, their culture, and the world.

Source:  Flickr

Source: Flickr

For one, there’s opportunity to learn about people from all over the world and connect with people from different walks of life even in one’s own community. There’s plenty to learn and plenty of people to engage with. This openness to other cultures and experiences breeds empathy and understanding, plus offers a type of education that can’t be obtained in traditional schools. 

Social media also offers a way to contribute to the world in various ways. People can share information to spread the word about things that are worth talking about, they can launch campaigns to get people involved in local and international problems and put efforts forward to take action to solve those problems, and they can contribute to charities and funding projects that are meaningful.

On an individual basis, people may not be changing the world by way of social media. But for those who recognize these amazing opportunities that social media presents them with, the combined efforts pack a punch. Petitions from social media have turned to law, they’ve prompted action, they’ve made real change in the world. Fundraisers have helped everything from an individual recovering from a medical procedure and dealing with the financial fallout from it, to helping bring much needed resources to underprivileged societies. The reach is literally global.

The ball is in the user’s court, every user. The world is within reach, but how will the opportunity be seized? Often times, comments on popular posts show the clash between users of different backgrounds. But that negativity gives a lasting impression that spreads. If people take this opportunity to engage and learn and spread kindness, the world becomes a more productive and more friendly place.


Kindness Doesn’t Work Alone

Lucky for the users who believe in kindness and using social media for friendliness and positivity, they’re not alone. Tech gurus behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook are aware of the trends behind their services, and they’re paying attention.

For example, Facebook conducted a study in 2013 that analyzed over three million posts. They separated the posts by whether the content was positive, negative, or neutral. What they found was exactly what was covered above: when people see positive posts, they post more positive things. In other words, negativity breeds negativity, and positivity breeds positivity. Positivity also leads people to be more active on Facebook, and to engage more with their friends. 

Twitter, on the other hand, found that their algorithm is being taken advantage of with negative posts. Twitter works by showing users posts that it thinks users will want to see the most, and these posts are ones that have been engaged with the most with replies, retweets, and favorites. However, as any user on Twitter can attest to- Twitter users like to argue and are likely to engage with something that they disagree with. This results in negative and controversial posts, even if they contain misinformation, to be projected to a wider user base (even if the truth is more positive).

The fact that Twitter and Facebook are using resources to look into how their users are using their social media platforms, and how their algorithms for the media feeds affects the user’s experience, is good news.  It means that these tech giants are paying attention. Presumably, they want users to have a more positive experience. If positive experiences result in more activity, it stands to reason that they’ll do whatever they can to make their platforms more friendly, less toxic places for users to be.

It’s understandable that associating kindness and positivity with social media isn’t always an easy connection to draw. After all, social media breeds trolls, harassment opportunities, and even negativity from people that matter. It’s easy to get lost in this labyrinth of negativity, and many often do.

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

How can you make social media a kinder place for yourself?

  1. If you see a post you don’t like, stop yourself and think before responding. Ask yourself if your reply to this post is going to make the difference you want it to. Will your opinion change their minds, or just start an argument? Will a sarcastic reply make a valid point, or just make somebody feel bad? Will you contribute to negativity? Then, ask yourself if that’s how you want yourself to be portrayed to the world.

  2. If you’re in a difficult situation, find the high road and take it. Engaging in negativity won’t create a positive result for either participant. It’s best to end the conversation on a high note and walk away.

  3. Consciously put kindness into the world. Offer genuine compliments when you see the opportunity, congratulate somebody on a new life event, send an old friend a random message and let them know you’re thinking of them. Before you post or comment, always ask yourself first, “does this contribute to a kinder world?”

  4. Think of how others see you. Sure, you might have had a bad day and wanted to blow of steam by trash talking some stranger on a random post. But people don’t see that context. They only see the comment. This is an impression that they’ll hold on to. It’s good to make sure you have control over the impression you want to give to others.

Kindness and empathy are things that are often missing from today’s social media world. While social media has largely become a negative place, it still provides an opportunity for each and every user to put kindness into their own world and the world around them.


Image source: Flickr