Watching older generations fumble over various social media platforms (and the internet in general) is a source of great amusement and endless entertainment for so many. We’re no strangers to talking our grandparents down from tangents over PizzaGate and other political conspiracies they found on Facebook: No Grandma, I’m pretty sure the vaccine does not contain a magnetic chip that connects to the 5G towers, giving Elon Musk access to our thoughts. A simple Google search with a hint of common sense is all it would take to disprove those conspiracies, a concept right at their fingertips that they just can’t seem to grasp. How silly! We’re so quick to laugh at the foolish oversights of our elders, so quick that we skim right past our own folly and tumble into the same traps. Ask yourselves this: When was the last time you found an interesting piece of news or information on a medium that wasn’t TikTok? When you did in fact learn something new on TikTok, did you take a second to verify the info (checking the comments does not count) or did you take it at face value? Maybe we have more in common with previous generations than we thought. Oh, how we’ve fallen from grace.
To say that social media is inherently a bad source of information is a bit ignorant and lacking in nuance. It can be a hub of primary resources providing live footage from an event, perspectives from people at the scene, and in the case of celebrity gossip—evidence of cheating via Instagram DMs (hey Adam Levine!). It can also offer a wider range of views you wouldn’t otherwise think of. The problem lies in how easy it is to alter anything on social media, and how easy it is to believe. If you too spend more time on TikTok than you’d like to admit, you’ve probably come across the video of Barack Obama’s face and voice superimposed over Ice Spice’s Genius interview, describing what a “munch” is, and boasting about being a “two-hit wonder, dafuq.” Maybe you’ve also come across the various AI song covers—a personal favorite of mine is Toad from Mario Kart singing “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” These AI edits/deep fakes, while realistic, are harmless and usually tagged as not real. It becomes concerning when you realize how easy it would be to create one of these edits, make the changes more subtle, and post them as the real thing (see Tom Hanks having to issue a statement assuring fans that an ad for a dental plan was not actually him).
For the most part, our generation is at least mildly aware of the presence of altered media or fake news—we couldn’t forget 2020 if we tried. Unfortunately, we’re also incredibly impatient and pretty trigger-happy. The idea of taking a couple of seconds to verify a post we see on social media doesn’t even cross our minds, and if the story strikes an emotional chord, we repost without a second thought. While we may like to assume the best from the people we know and outlets we trust, we have to keep in mind that misinformation (information that is false) and disinformation (information that is deliberately false, usually from unverified outlets or accounts that have an agenda) are very real in this media landscape, and if we’re to continue to consume media the way that we do, we have to learn how to digest it properly.
The solution to correct misinformation and combat disinformation isn’t straightforward. Simply banning false statements would be an infringement on free speech, and as hard as tech companies try, it’s impossible to regulate and fact-check the billions of posts added to media platforms every day. Our best defense against falling victim to mis/disinformation is to develop media literacy.
Media literacy is something that has to be learned and continually evolve in line with the media itself. Tackling the never-ending stream of information constantly available to us may seem harrowing but it’s a necessary skill set for this day and age and will allow us to continue to make fun of our easily duped family members without being hypocrites. Here’s how to get started:
The first step you should take when considering the validity of a piece of media is to check the source: Who wrote/posted it? What are their credentials? If your source of scientific or historical information is The Shade Room or Trisha Paytas, you should do further research.
Your next step should be to understand the purpose of the post: Is it to entertain? To inform objectively? To offer a new subjective perspective? To rant? To praise? Similarly, you should be aware of biases, whether in language, emotion, the viewpoints of whoever made the post, or the media outlet as a whole: if you’re looking at Fox News you should expect the news to come from a pretty conservative lens, versus the more liberal views at MSNBC.
Next, cross-check. See what other sites/people are saying—if they’re saying anything at all. If you can’t find the info you’re checking anywhere else online, chances are it’s false. Cross-checking also offers different perspectives to help form your opinion, which is essential when the algorithms in charge of your feeds are hellbent on showing you more of your own views and interests.
Finally, context is key! Look at the history, potential causes, and who or what is involved and why.
Following these steps before believing and reposting something you see online is crucial to stopping the spread of mis/disinformation. Are these steps guaranteed to reveal the truth every single time? No. But your chances of being publicly humiliated for believing and reposting fake news will be greatly diminished, and you can boast intellectual superiority over your less media-literate peers (or, better yet, educate them too!).
The consequences of the spread of mis/disinformation are very real and very dangerous. Just recently we saw its effect on the countless lives lost over distrust of the Covid vaccine. We may have transcended Boomers’ fall to targeted Facebook ads, but TikTok’s algorithm offers the same dangers to Gen Z. Our chronically online generation is perhaps the most at risk of being affected by mis/disinformation, as social media is our main connection to the world at large, and sharing thoughts on important social and political issues is integral to our online culture. It’s essential that we remain skeptical of info shared on social media, especially as technology continues to evolve and AI becomes more prevalent. Until laws or systems are put into place to effectively fact-check misinformation and stop disinformation, we have to rely on ourselves to combat these dangers. Remember to check the source, purpose, bias, other outlets, and context!