Americans today face some unprecedented challenges–and as I have repeatedly noted, our information environment makes those challenges far more difficult to meet.
The Internet, which has brought us undeniable benefits and conveniences, also allows us to occupy “filter bubbles”—to inhabit different realities. One result has been a dramatic loss of trust, as even people of good will, inundated with misinformation, spin, and propaganda, don’t know what to believe, or how to determine which sources are credible.
Fact-checking sites are helpful, but they only help those who seek them out. The average American scrolling through her Facebook feed during a lunch break is unlikely to stop and check the veracity of most of what her friends have posted.
There is general agreement that Americans need to develop media literacy and policy tools to discourage the transmittal of propaganda. But before we can teach media literacy in our schools or consider policy interventions to address propaganda, we need to consider what media literacy requires, and what the First Amendment forbids.
Think about that fictional person scrolling through her Facebook or Twitter feed. She comes across a post berating her Congressman for failing to block the zoning of a liquor store in her neighborhood. If our person is civically literate—if she understands federalism and separation of powers– she knows that her Congressman has no authority in such matters, and that the argument is bogus.
In other words, basic knowledge of how government works is a critical component of media literacy.
It isn’t just civic knowledge, of course. People who lack a basic understanding of the difference between a scientific theory and the way we use the term “theory” in casual conversation are much more likely to dismiss evolution and climate change as “just theories,” and to be taken in by efforts to discredit both.
To be blunt about it, people fortified with basic civic and scientific knowledge are far more likely to recognize disinformation when they encounter it. That knowledge is just as important as information on how to detect “deep fakes” and similar counterfeits.
There are also policy steps we can take to diminish the power of propaganda without doing violence to the First Amendment. The Brookings Institution has suggested establishment of a “public trust” to provide analysis and generate policy proposals that would defend democracy “against the constant stream of disinformation and the illiberal forces at work disseminating it.”
In too many of the discussions of social media and media literacy, we overlook the fact that disinformation isn’t encountered only online. Cable news has long been a culprit. (One study found that Americans who got their news exclusively from Fox knew less about current events than people who didn’t follow news at all.) Any effort to reduce the flow of propaganda must include measures aimed at cable television as well as online media.
Many proposals that are aimed at online disinformation address the social media protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. I reviewed them here.
Bottom line: we can walk and chew gum at the same time.
If and when we get serious about media literacy, we need to do two things. We need to ensure that America’s classrooms have the resources—curricular and financial—to teach civic, scientific and media literacy. (Critical thinking and logic would also be very helpful…) And policymakers must devise regulations that will deter propaganda without eviscerating the First Amendment. Such regulations are unlikely to totally erase the problem, but well-considered tweaks can certainly reduce it.