By Nico Luginbill, Democracy & Me intern
The Election is here. For months, political messages have filled up our friends’ Instagram stories, miniscule political occurrences have hit Twitter’s trending page, and even TikTok has reflected the ticking time bomb our Democracy has become. However, news and political content on social media frequently lacks credibility and depth, being designed to make you think or feel (and if you’re old enough, to vote) one way or another without necessarily knowing all the facts. With our abundant access to social media, it is critical that we are media-literate in order to help reduce misinformation before, during, and even after the election.
The aftermath of this year’s Presidential race, and of many important down-ballot contests, threatens to be particularly controversial and subject to widespread misinformation and disinformation. There’s a high possibility of results swinging as mail-in votes arrive for counting after polls close, with President Trump and Republicans already trying to limit ballot deadlines through the courts. We’ve already seen social media posts from both sides, though more often from the far right, claiming that people will deem the results fraudulent if their candidate does not win. Remember that people and bots alike will try their best to misinform and cause chaos as the results come in. Make sure to get information from reputable sources tonight, and keep in mind that even major news organizations can sometimes act prematurely and make mistakes. (Our friends at NPR trust only the Associated Press when it comes to calling elections; here’s how that works.)
When political news… Isn’t
At the time of Barack Obama’s first election in 2008, just 25 percent of Americans used social media. Recent studies estimate that nearly 75 percent of American adults regularly use social media, with 90 percent of those under age 30 using it. As a result of this drastic increase in our media consumption and participation, on top of what the pandemic has done to our normal IRL interactions, this 2020 election season has been different from any other. Countless organizations have been posting political stories and infographics that get shared, retweeted, and added to stories, particularly among the younger generation.
While this is great in terms of general election awareness and access to political information, plus understanding of the voting process itself (especially for first-timers), the constant streams can also result in more misinformed voters. The unfortunate reality is that political social media posts are often biased, and less than factual. At least in my experience, most of the political content that gets shared seems credible, but falls into the category of “why my opinion regarding this issue is right,” rather than actual news. I have to constantly ask myself: What’s the source? Where’s this information coming from? What other purposes might be behind it?
We humans are hard-wired to trust “information” that fits what we think we already know, and to be more skeptical of anything that contradicts it. (It’s called “confirmation bias,” and a lot of social media posts are designed to take advantage. Here’s a good video about that from, yes, a reliable source: KQED’s “Above the Noise” series.)
ICYMI, last week was Media Literacy Week, organized by the good people at the educational non-profit org NAMLE. You can still access a lot of their great free resources on how to scroll smarter during these politically intense times and beyond.
The week emphasized five components to media literacy: Access, Analyze, Evaluate, Create, and Act. With our great privilege of extensive access to news through social media, it is absolutely essential that we remember to analyze and evaluate what we see online. If someone posts something that seems questionable to you, research it—it’s easy! We can go to Snopes.com or one of these other Top Ten fact-checking sites for students to evaluate online statements based on trustworthy news sources. Even when fact-checking, remember that not every official-looking article is trustworthy: unreputable sources often publish politically biased disinformation and misinformation masked by “legit” cosmetics, and even reputable news sources sometimes publish misleading narratives and misinformation. If you find an article from a news source you know less about, this media bias and reliability chart can help you “sniff test” what you’re reading and make sure it’s safe for consumption.
Sometimes, go deep
In the end, while social media is wonderful in how it helps us connect and provides access to a wide variety of news, it’s important to take breaks from scrolling to ingest more substantial content, the kind of long-form, well researched journalism that puts our crazy news cycles in context. The American Press Institute recently found, to no surprise, that while younger adults are more up-to-date on breaking news, older adults consume more in-depth news. Compared to quick-hit content that is designed to capture attention and provoke emotions, sometimes a long, black-text- white-background article can seem boring. If it’s something you really want to read but you’re struggling to focus, printing out a hard copy to read away from your device, or listening to an audio version with your eyes closed, might help.
There are also excellent podcasts (NPR and WVXU are good places to start), YouTube videos, and even television programs (try PBS NewsHour) which dive deeply into relevant issues. Even when it seems tedious, in the end, finishing a long article or a complex podcast feels good, and teaches you a lot more than what you might gain from hours of doomscrolling.
As we patiently await the results of today’s elections–democracy depends on counting everyone’s votes, and especially this year, it’s going to take some time–be media-smart. This is one test our country cannot fail, and as media literate students, we can lead the way.