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The war in Israel and Gaza is a tragedy by any measure. This is a fact. But there are many “facts” being circulated on the internet that are, in fact, not true. Inaccurate, unreliable information is going viral daily, across social media platforms — manipulated images, photos and videos taken out of context from wars or conflicts past, the list goes on.
Take a look at any fact-checking website and you’ll be shocked by the volume of content that has gone viral across social media platforms that contain misinformation and disinformation related to this war. Even if you just Google “Misinformation and Israel Gaza war” there are many reliable news stories about the proliferation of disinformation about the conflict online from some of the most trusted sources like the Associated Press and Reuters.
It’s overwhelming. The internet is overwhelming in times like these, particularly social media. As a dear, very wise friend of mine, Gen Z and social media content expert Rachel Richardson put it – this is an online war we are all in.
I have spent years fighting the online misinformation war. I ran a global media literacy initiative called MediaWise at the Poynter Institute – where our programs and educational content online reached tens of millions of people around the world. I have personally taught thousands of teenagers how to spot misinformation on the internet – sometimes using a projector screen in a middle school gym. The core focus of the trainings were to teach everyday folks the skills, tools, tips and tricks used by journalists to verify facts for news reporting. Journalists are very good at identifying falsehoods and some of the simplest methods and strategies for online research can easily be taught to the masses. I am a third generation journalist and have worked in newsrooms including CNN, CNBC and others – I have decades of experience in fact-checking and more generally, separating fact from fiction in my work.
In the context of this online war you are seeing unfold, every day, right now, on your social media feeds – my advice as a media literacy expert (because really, this is ALL about media literacy) is to take a break from social media during times like these. I know it’s hard, but it is necessary.
I also encourage people managers at every level of any corporation or business, to encourage their employees to do the same. Doomscrolling and potentially coming across viral content, including violent and graphic content that is damaging to one’s mental health, is something people need to be protected from. Misinformation and disinformation are dangerous to any society – and the guardrails have basically been removed across platforms when it comes to news content. Not only that, but most social platform algorithms amplify polarizing content, by design. That means, inflammatory content that creates conflict between people, extreme opinions and more concerning content, are rewarded and being surfaced to millions of people.
Every person, no matter their expertise, can have access to a microphone, and say whatever they like on the internet. Just because an account that you follow has millions of followers and you love their content, doesn’t mean they are sharing reliable, accurate information. And frankly, many creators and influencers aren’t all that interested in getting the facts straight. I know this first-hand, after trying for years to get influencers to take fact-checking and media literacy trainings. Many (really, many) of them, don’t care or think they know better, when in reality, they are constantly sharing misinformation with millions of people. Not on purpose (!) (most of the time), that’s disinformation. I’m talking about the mass sharing of inaccurate information, essentially by mistake.
I am a diehard believer in free speech. However, I’m starting to think that influential accounts that have millions of followers all over the world across platforms need to be held accountable when they share inaccurate information. I’m not sure what that looks like, but being complicit, not fact-checking, gaming the algorithm, and polluting the online information ecosystem with damaging garbage, at scale – that does feel criminal. And it certainly is not in the interest of the public good.
So what should you do? I have three steps to get you started:
Step 1: Take a break from social media. Today, just stop. You decide how long. A few days? A week? It’s up to you. I guarantee you will see your mood improve as well.
Step 2: Pick 2-3 news websites to check and read periodically to stay informed. Sign up for their newsletters. Consider becoming a paying subscriber if they offer it. Quality news and information are good for democracy – and your information diet. Without it, we are all lost in the cesspool of online misinformation that will remain.
Step 3: Educate yourself – Here is the link to a great video series teaching journalistic skills as part of a media literacy course that I personally helped produce, hosted by best-selling author and online educator John Green for his Crash Course show. It’s called Navigating Digital Information and it’s a fun and informative starter pack that can be enjoyed with the whole family, and is safe to share with employees at all levels of any business.
And if this sounds like too much work – just stick with step 1. The noise on social is completely overwhelming and not useful right now. There are just too many mistakes happening in the sharing of information about this war… Do yourself a favor and just take a break.
Katy Byron is a media literacy and misinformation expert, and media consultant. You can learn more about her work and contact her for media literacy trainings here.