Media literacy in 2016: Strategies to decipher what is real and what is fake news on your newsfeed

Nov 1, 2016

You’ve seen it in your newsfeed before and perhaps even clicked on it or shared it: a bogus “news” story related to the election. While Facebook and other social media sites have worked hard to limit the reach of such stories, some still seep through the cracks.

You’ll see headlines like, “Michael Moore Endorsed Donald Trump?”, “6,000 Muslims with Forged Papers Caught at Southern Border,” “Recording Captures Tim Kaine Yelling at His Mistress,”and “Trump Just Removed His Name from His Hotels Due to Plummeting Business?”

Snopes, a website dedicated to debunking such stories, gives a good summary of the internet’s worst offenders for production of such stories here.

But how does a normal person parse out what is real and what is fake? On Tuesday’s program, one week out from the election and as part of Media Literacy Week, we discussed media literacy and what you need to know about news sources to trust, especially in light of election season. 

Joining the program was Julie Smith, a media literacy educator and author of “Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-in World” and Natasha Casey, professor of English and Communications at Blackburn College. 

Although news and political information is spread on more platforms in this day and age, Casey and Smith said that similar strategies still apply in thinking critically about media today, especially ahead of the election:

Julie Smith wrote the book "Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save you Plugged-in World."
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

“Every media message is constructed in some way, from camera angles, to lighting, to word choice,” Casey said. “These are all critical thinking skills you have to have. … Although the political climate might be ratcheted up a few notches this time around, those key questions and concepts will help people deconstruct them.”

Here are some of the key questions you should be asking about pieces of media you consume:

  • Who is the sender of the message?
  • What is their motive or intent?
  • Who benefits from the message?
  • What tips and tricks do they use to get their message across?
  • Who is their intended audience?
  • What are they leaving out?
  • How could others interpret the message differently than you?

Social media sites, of course, have changed up traditional information delivery structures, but these considerations still apply. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The impact of changing information sources can be seen among millennials, typically thought of as “digital native” members of the population and older generations.

Natasha Casey is a professor of commnications at Blackburn College.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

“With the democratization of media content, we can create media material that looks just as valid as, say, The Washington Post,” Smith said. “Most digital natives don’t have a credibility hierarchy like we do — they see anything produced online with the same credibility as something from the New York Times or Joe Shmoe down the street. They can’t distinguish the difference. Visually, a lot of things online look legitimate and you have to take that extra step to determine the source.”

Not so fast, said Natasha: older generations are often easily duped by false sources online as well, sharing spam or news from fake/satirical sites without realizing it is not a legitimate new source.

Both guests offered some strategies on how to combat this kind of confusion:

  • Google reverse image search helps you determine the origin of a photo to see if it has been photoshopped or repurposed with fake information.
  • Look out for copious spelling errors, a big giveaway a site may not be everything it says it is.
  • If you see something that you think may be too good to be true, use Snopes.com to research the validity of internet folklore and stories. Smith said that the website draws 300,000 hits a day and she gives it an “A+” rating for its apolitical nature.
  • Keep an eye out for satire: make sure the source of your information is not a satirical website. While places like The Onion openly broadcast the mocking nature of their website, other sources may not be so upfront.
  • For more political facts that need to be looked into, Smith recommends Politifact and Factcheck.org.
  • Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, compiled this list of websites known for sharing "false, misleading, clickbait-y and/or satirical news." It is worth looking through to see if you gather "news" from any of these sites. 
  • Finally, help educate the people in your life about the prevalence of internet scams and fake news. For younger learners, Casey recommends Project Look Sharp, which provides lesson plans in media literacy techniques for K-12 grades in a variety of classes from science to health to global studies.

Related Events

What: Gateway Media Literacy Partners Present 11th Annual Media Literacy Week

When: Oct.31- Nov. 6, various times

More information.

What: "Local Media and Informed Voting"
When: Wednesday, Nov. 2  from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: St. Louis Public Library Central Library, 1301 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103

More information.

Related Events

What: Gateway Media Literacy Partners Present 11th Annual Media Literacy Week

When: Oct.31- Nov. 6, various times

More information.

What: "Local Media and Informed Voting"
When: Wednesday, Nov. 2 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: St. Louis Public Library Central Library, 1301 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103

More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.