Critical thinking and media literacy: Defence against disinformation and hate speech

Joe Munnelly, 24 Dublin, Ireland Young Voices
November 2016

Joe Munnelly discusses how it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between factual news and ‘fake news’. Disinformation online can have a worrying impact on the way it shapes people’s views and attitudes. He argues that social media sites must regulate the content that is uploaded onto their platforms and young people must be educated with media literacy and critical thinking.

The rise of ‘fake news’ and disinformation is a troubling phenomenon which will continue to worsen if the problem is left ignored. The result of the 58th US presidential election shone a light on the widespread influence disinformation has on those who receive it as Facebook among other social media channels are placed under scrutiny in allowing ‘fake news’ and slanderous content about both candidates go unregulated strengthening not only misperceptions but causing great damage to democracy as thousands of US citizens had cast their vote, many of whom were effectively misinformed. The US presidential election is but one recent example of how infectious disinformation and hateful content is online.

My research focused on misinformation and hate speech online regarding the European refugee crisis. My goal was determine whether hateful and misleading content promoted and created by groups such as PEIGDA UK or Britain First were influencing Irish attitudes and perceptions of refugees. My research, although also analysing islamophobia, focused specifically on misleading and disinformative content. From memes and Facebook posts falsely suggesting the majority of Syrian refugees were men to altered or wrongly labelled photographs shared online – the purpose of my research was to determine whether such disinformation did in fact influence people. The findings were unsurprising and mirrored previous research on the state of social media and the damaging affect it can have on users lacking much needed critical thinking and media literacy. Disinformation is a phenomenon which has infiltrated and grown within the cyber-world affecting information from celebrity culture to news reports and issues of international relations. People are affected by misleading content online and this is proven not only by social research but basic statistics with data analytics quantifying just how many thousands of people are liking, sharing and reading false or misleading content. Just like hate speech, disinformation needs to be countered but counter-narratives alone cannot lessen the influence ‘false news’ has on audiences. Instead people need to be educated and social media companies such as Facebook have to be made accountable for validating misleading or un-credible content which has been allowed on many occasions to appear on ‘trending lists’ – making the problem even worse.

So what can be done?

Advocating for regulation means that disinformation and misleading content can be countered. In recent weeks, Facebook, having listened to criticism, plan to introduce: ‘fake news’ or ‘un-trustworthy’ labels for suspect posts and pages. Although Facebook are still deliberating on such a move and the need for a regulating body – it is a sign of progress and has in itself highlighted the issue of ‘false news’ which can be found across the World Wide Web. Advocacy is a tool that all social justice activists have at their disposal – by talking about issues of media bias, misleading content and disinformation online, we as individuals can make people aware of the misinformation that can deceive people. Although disinformation is a problem affecting everyone generally, youth are most at risk and it is important that young people are made aware of how the media works, the importance of objective reporting and understanding that the information they see online may be misleading.

From my work with young people and the many focus groups and workshops across Ireland, the need and want for informal learning approaches within the formal education sector was strongly voiced. Irish youth wanted civic education but felt it needed a re-vamp, to teach general life and social skills from learning about autism to debates and discussions on current affairs – youth want a space where they can be engaged in politics and the social issues affecting their communities. In early November, I sat at the first United Nations assembly on youth, human rights and democracy. Over two days in Geneva, the sole focus was on global youth affairs and the need for civic education or better and inclusive civic education was voiced by many member states. Momentum is building and it is important that youth workers and organisations rally behind this global movement to engage youth in issues regarding social justice and human rights but we must understand too – that media literary and critical thinking is so crucial in this unregulated information and digital age.

Youth need to be made aware of the malicious intent to divide and mislead communities and if we are to influence youth positively and to effectively dispel prejudice and hate – addressing the issue of disinformation is vital.

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