Stephen Colbert, in the premiere episode of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, introduced a term into our cultural psyche: truthiness. “We are a divided nation,” Colbert explained. “Divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.” Truthiness, he went on, is when you want something to be true because it feels right. Facts need not apply.
That was October 2005 — well before fake news became part of our household vocabulary. He might as well have said it yesterday.
Regardless of who is in the White House, our elected officials need to tackle the plague of disinformation that feeds on manipulating feelings and scoffs at hard, cold facts. Disinformation spread knowingly or unknowingly through our media ecosystem confuses the American people — at best by blurring the truth; at worst, by sowing seeds of violent division based on fear and subconscious bias.
The solution: media literacy. In the same way literacy allows you to critically read a novel — assessing its meaning, its biases, and more — media literacy allows you to do the same with the news, advertisements, social media, and more.
1. Whose message?
First, it’s important to identify who is promoting a given message. The answer might be a political candidate, a corporation, a concerned private citizen, or a nonprofit. But these entities might not be the messenger. The messenger may be a super PAC, an athlete, a cute kid, or a celebrity.
While it’s likely the messenger and the owner of the message align in their values, don’t forget who's really in charge here. Knowing who owns the message — who might be paying for it — helps unravel who stands to benefit from that message spreading.
An important reminder: The answer to the question, Whose message? may be a foreign power. As we’ve seen, the spread of disinformation destabilizes and divides our country — and there are plenty of foreign actors that benefit as a result. The messenger in this case may very well be spreading the message of a foreign actor unknowingly, assuming the information is true and accurate. Check your sources.
2. Whose voice?
This might seem obvious: the voice we’re hearing or reading is the voice on the screen! But the question of voice is really a question of absence: Who are we not hearing from? And, why?
Answers certainly vary. This voice you hear or read might be the only voice that agrees with the message. That casts some doubt over the message’s authenticity, particularly if there are other voices out there that blatantly disagree. A good safety check is to consider the sources of expertise that are brought in to bolster an argument, and if their conclusions resonate with other reputable sources.
Other considerations are important, too. Is this a message about eradicating poverty? If so, are we hearing from people who are impacted by poverty, or are we hearing from those who propose their own solutions?
And, of course, in the era of deep fakes — and not-so-deep fakes — we need to ask ourselves: Is this actually the real voice of the speaker in question, unedited and in context? Or, is this a manipulated voice that has been edited to serve the goals of the larger message? (And whose message, at that? See point 1.)
3. What emotions?
When conveying a message, it’s important to speak to the head and the heart. A good argument shares facts, but also evokes emotion. The emotion drives action — or maintains inaction.
Here’s an example: We may note that nearly 80 million people have been forced from their homes around the world — and these people have children just like mine who deserve the joys of childhood. That hits me in the gut: I look at my little girls and think of the countless little girls who are without homes, whose futures are in doubt. I want to help.
But we might hear a different message. With so many desperate people on the move around the world, certainly some of them have been radicalized and pose a threat to me and my family. I don’t want them here in my community. I want to do all I can to keep my family safe — and keep those would-be terrorists far away.
One message invites empathy, and maybe a financial donation; the other provokes fear and xenophobia. A nonprofit that works with refugees can benefit from the first message; a political party that benefits from a homogenous, nationalistic base benefits from the second.
It’s important to identify what emotions are stirred in you by a given message. Social media platforms know your unconscious biases and preferences based on your activity. The emotions these messages stir in you aren’t accidental — they’re strategic. Bad actors — both foreign and domestic — know this. Respond accordingly.
4. Who understands?
Bias is unavoidable. But how a message is framed is everything. If the phrase “law and order” is only invoked in messaging focused on peaceful protests for racial justice, then the viewer makes the connection that racial justice itself is somehow dangerous, and possibly illegal — and that’s the point of the message. Viewers who consume a balanced diet of media will spot this as the problem it is; viewers who consume media from a single perspective may not.
What about child sex trafficking and pedophiles? No one in their right mind would condone such things, and yet in our present media ecosystem, such references are nods to the QAnon conspiracy theory – a dark and dangerous rabbit hole, to say the least. Again, based on where you consume media, you might not even know what that is. But if you’re in the know, such a reference can lead you to take action — sometimes resulting in violence.
5. Who benefits?
Ultimately, this is the key question — and circles back to the first point. There are countless ways to benefit from media-illiterate consumers. Power, money, and influence are just a few ways.
Let’s take one specific example: QAnon. Are there political figures who benefit from supporting the messaging of this fringe conspiracy theory? If QAnon feeds on heightened emotion and a sense of righteousness, a thirst for hidden knowledge and conspiratorial justice, then what might political movements stand to gain by engaging these ideas? And what about social media platforms? Sensational articles garner more clicks, more ads, more money — whether or not they’re based on truth. The same dynamics are involved with corporations, who may benefit from knowing what not to say so they avoid antagonizing a small, but motivated group of followers.
These questions uncover the dynamics behind the messaging reaching your media feed. Powerful stakeholders are interested in shaping perception, so to be a thoughtful citizen means we have to have our eyes open to the source and intent of the content we receive.
Finally, it can’t be emphasized enough that foreign powers seek influence in our media ecosystem for their own benefit. When the United States finds itself divided by chaos and instability, we leave quite a large void on the global stage. That void has to be filled by someone.
Media literacy is not easy — particularly in this moment of highly divisive rhetoric, inescapable echo chambers, and a media environment that often prioritizes presenting “both sides” of an issue rather than simply relaying facts. Nonetheless, this is one of the most important issues of our time. Democratic systems the world over are at stake.