Disinformation circulating on social media can now be the difference between illness and health.
To the untrained eye, a video of Stella Immanuel, an American doctor, appears completely legitimate. Immanuel, while wearing her white coat and standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, says she knows how to prevent further COVID-19 deaths. With a line of other people wearing white lab coats behind her, she assures that the virus has a cure: hydroxychloroquine.
The claim spread quickly across social platforms, garnering millions of views after being shared by Donald Trump and one of his sons. Both Facebook and Twitter quickly removed the video for violating their misinformation policies, and the Centers for Disease Control debunked the doctor’s claims. But for millions, the damage had already been done — the seed of misinformation had been sown.
Media literacy, or more specifically a lack thereof, could prove to be one of the biggest threats posed by social media. As displayed by viral claims that attempt to downplay the virus’s severity and unfounded theories for potential cures, the threat extends beyond the practice, and to society as a whole.
Facebook and other social media platforms have upped their misinformation policies as a response to the pandemic and the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Twitter has implemented a label beneath tweets that present disputed election claims, warning the viewer of such. They’ve also begun completely removing some tweets with false information, as they did for the Immanuel video. Facebook has also started flagging posts as misleading or inaccurate, though its implementation has drawn a mixed reaction.
As the World Health Organization deems it, the problem this “infodemic” presents is obvious; the solution, on the other hand, remains in question. While the steps taken by Twitter and Facebook are a good start, more needs to be done to help individuals struggling to navigate the modern media landscape. I believe that media literacy courses should be required for all Canadians at the high school level, in order to reduce the spread of misinformation, and improve social media as a news-sharing platform.
Per a Ryerson University study, 94 per cent of online Canadians use social media. More than half of those users reported having come across some form of misinformation. A McGill University study found that the more a user relied on social media for news related to the pandemic, the more likely they were to defy public health guidelines. The inverse is equally true: the more a person relies on traditional news media for pandemic information, the more likely they were to follow the guidelines. A similar study at Carleton University found that almost half of Canadians surveyed believe at least one Corona virus conspiracy theory, with more than 25 per cent believing the virus was engineered in China as a weapon.
There are media studies courses that focus on the influences that advertising, propaganda and even cinema can have on consumers. But in the digital ecosystem that we currently find ourselves in, it has become essential to realize why misinformation exists on social media, and who benefits from it. Yet, students are never taught how to use these platforms properly.
In April, the Canadian government invested $3 million in order to help fight against virus-related misinformation. The money will be divided among several programs with the aim of “helping Canadians become more resilient and think critically.” As recently as late October, the federal government launched a program in collaboration with MediaSmarts to benefit Media Literacy Week in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
This plan, while well-intentioned, is reactive rather than proactive. Viewing misinformation related to the pandemic as a blip rather than the new normal is potentially very dangerous.
Last year in the U.S., a federal bill was introduced calling for $20 million of investment in media literacy education. Since then, 15 states have introduced media literacy bills, which aim to add media literacy as a part of the required high school curriculum. Beyond more consistent and clear messaging from all levels of government, experts prescribe some level of training required for students. Right now, social media users are left to use the formative platforms without the proper equipment; they are placed in a sea of information without a life raft.
In order to remedy its problem with misinformation, it will be essential for Canadian students to be instructed in media literacy by the time they graduate from high school. This baseline education, coupled with the advocacy we continue to see from groups such as MediaSmarts, creates a more educated media-consuming population. In the midst of this pandemic, it is media literacy, even more than epidemiology or politics, that could prove to be the greatest life-saver.
Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab