Future Tense

Confused About Screen Time and Disinformation? You Aren’t Alone.

Today’s many crises demonstrate why we desperately need media mentors.

A librarian helping a girl with a computer.
Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte

As the world careens from one crisis to another—as COVID-19 brings us closed schools and massive unemployment, as horrific videos of police brutality spark more than a week of nationwide protests—one thing has been constant and concerning: We are devouring digital media, seeking out information and scrolling for solace.

And, let’s face it, we’re seeking and scrolling in the dark. We’re doing this literally, as we sit up at 2 a.m. in our bedrooms, scrolling and clicking and unable to sleep. And figuratively, clicking through mazes of media messages on social media, pushing through brush to find a trail. Most of us have had no guides to orient us in this streaming and screaming digital world.

How were we supposed to know that a widely distributed photo of the Washington Monument on fire during the protests was a total fake? Where do we turn when someone makes the false claim that masks are bad for our health? We never got training on which plants are poison. Meanwhile, when we can pull ourselves away from our own on-screen odysseys, we are supposed to be helping teach our stuck-at-home kids, steering them away from toxic memes and violent media and toward the good stuff, when we have had little to no guidance on what the good stuff even looks like.

We need a hell of a lot more trail maps and flashlights. And we desperately need media mentors and trusted digital navigators—real people who can guide us through this churning media landscape. We need the librarians, educators, and local communication experts who know how to help students, parents, and members of the public gain a deeper understanding of how media is made, who is behind media messages and what their motivations may be, and how to become selective and discerning as we click and share. These are not people who wag fingers or make people feel ashamed about how they are using technology and media tools. Their job is to listen, respond, and create space for talking about media and what we want from it.

At the moment these mentors are rare. Our governments, education systems, and marketplaces have not invested in these kinds of people. School librarians, for example, are trained to provide this kind of guidance, yet they have been losing their jobs. (In California, for example, according to School Library Journal, a $6 billion cut to K–12 schools in 2009 led to more than half of school libraries across the state being without librarians; new money was supposed to arrive this year, but COVID-related closures are crippling state budgets.)

Most teachers have received little preparation on how to talk to their students about technology and media, let alone help them become savvier about using social media networks. Many educators feel overwhelmed by what they are already expected to teach their students, and they aren’t given support to integrate digital media literacy into their classrooms. Large-scale research studies on how to effectively teach these skills do not exist. And parents have been misled into thinking their job is to track time spent on a screen, as if what matters most is tallying minutes instead of helping kids be responsible digital citizens and creators of positive change online.

But maybe you are one of the lucky ones who do happen to have media mentors. They are rare but not mythical. Right now, even during this wear-a-mask #StayAtHome saga, media literacy educators and information literacy specialists are finding ways to guide people through the wilderness. Julie Smith, an instructor of media communications at Webster University and author of Master the Media, is fielding emails from her students and extended family about whether to believe rumors on social media about the novel coronavirus and answering questions on a local radio talk show. Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at University of Rhode Island and co-founder of the Summer Institute on Digital Literacy, hosted Virtually Viral Hangouts as a daily online public forum for providing both emotional support and online learning during the first 12 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 120 people participated in at least one session, and many of them were educators who created pieces of media together and gleaned ideas for teaching future classes.

And public libraries are playing a role too, through means such as hosting “Ask a Librarian” virtual office hours to answer questions on where to find e-books and troubleshoot tech problems. These efforts may not sound like they have any connection to the plague of disinformation, but they are laying a foundation for helping people to build skills in using—and becoming savvier about the use of—media and technology. To help those without good internet access, the Schaumburg Township District Library in Illinois has created a number for Dial-a-Stories to maintain a connection with community families, and, with each story told, young children gain a chance to learn to listen closely and think about what the author intended for them to hear. Claudia Haines—a co-author of Becoming a Media Mentor, the brains behind the Never Shushed website, and a public librarian in Homer, Alaska—is broadcasting storytime on the local AM radio for her rural community of 6,000. She has become enough of a trusted guide that one mother emailed this week to ask for advice on which books on anti-racism to check out for her child. Haines sent her multiple options for curbside checkout.

There are also new websites, online courses, teaching tools, and videos designed to train us on how to find and share well-sourced information and avoid falling victim to the “infodemic” of disinformation spreading virally around the world. The National Association for Media Literacy Education has published a growing list of tools, tips, articles, and online teaching resources for avoiding and building critical thinking skills in the midst of the pandemic. IREX, known for its work on media literacy outside the U.S., has developed an English version of its online course, Very Verified. The public station KQED is producing Above the Noise, a YouTube series for teens, which includes advice on spotting deepfakes. Crash Course has produced a series on navigating online information. The News Literacy Project has developed infographics on how to Sanitize Before You Share to stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation and more. Snopes has special coverage debunking rumors swirling around George Floyd’s killing. @MediaWise on Twitter, run by the Poynter Institute, gives daily reminders of how to avoid being duped.

And CIVIX, a Canadian nonprofit focused on civic education and combating information pollution, introduces its offerings by first showing a video of Michael Caulfield, director of networked and blended learning at Washington State University–Vancouver. In the video, Caulfield (who has also created a blog, Sifting Through the Pandemic) introduces a source-checking technique based in part on “lateral reading,” an acclaimed concept rooted in research from Stanford. (Instead of just checking a website for its “About” page, do what good fact-checkers do: Open a new tab on your web browser and conduct a simple keyword search to see what other sources have written on that topic.) As Caulfield says, “While getting to absolute certainty is a never-ending task, getting confident enough to make the sort of decisions that you need to make is within your grasp—and a skill you can learn in a short amount of time.”

It is great to see these tools, tutorials, and video messages emerging online. They are as essential as the orange blazes on the tree trunks, keeping us on track. But it seems likely that the people using these resources are already alert to disinformation and know they need help, or they are educators given enough leeway to teach these skills. What about the people not even aware there is a problem? A big challenge for media literacy proponents is to expand the circle of people who want to learn. That is why we need mentors in our communities who know the locals. They make themselves available for conversation and interaction. (They might start, for example, by offering workshops to help parents with worries about their kids’ media use, by launching a film club for older adults, or by starting a podcasting clinic for teens.) They listen to what their constituents need. And then they model what it looks like to inquire about, seek, create, and share the most credible information.

They understand that, ultimately, what they are helping people to develop is a critical form of literacy. Because just putting a label on a tweet won’t be enough, and, as the Washington Post reported, even Snopes can’t keep up with all the misinformation and rumors; we need to train our brains to sort information no matter what comes our way.

Right now, our streets are pulsing with urgent calls for major reforms to unjust systems—health systems, economic systems, criminal justice systems—that have not served the vast majority of our country well, especially people of color. So much needs to change. Getting much smarter on digital media literacy—waking up to the fact that digital information can be turned into a weapon and then harnessing it to promote positive change—is part of the answer. We need to go beyond setting time limits and learn how to sort and filter what we need from our news and social media streams. These are skills that fortify our society against disinformation and misinformation of all kinds, whether about public health, elections, “must-have” products, or who is responsible for the looting in the wake of peaceful protests. And all of this requires investing in people who can help us learn our way through the dark.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.