Every click you make online counts. It is ridiculously easy to fall down a rabbit hole on any subject. You could accidentally go for hours scrolling through content from cat videos to updates on vaccines. While these may just be displays of innocent scrolling, we could just as easily be feeding our minds with dangerous content difficult to remove from our brains later on.
Don’t believe me? The University of Connecticut Journalism’s department chair, Marie Shanahan, elaborates more on the matter in her webinar “Fighting the Infodemic: Using News Literacy and Social Media to Combat Health Misinformation.”
Shanahan opened her webinar with a reflection upon her own behavior. Every morning she opens a series of social media applications, her time on them totaling to an hour. Like most people she clicked on various links and webpages, thinking she was genuinely interested in the subject matter. In reality, she spent time on these pages because they sparked some sort of emotion within her. Whether that emotion be joy or anger, the internet had such a connection to her mind that she permitted it to dictate her emotions. Once emotions are involved in research, people are susceptible to forming biases.
Shanahan illustrated that society has put too much trust in the wrong sources. This trend initially emerged at the start of the pandemic, but the numbers have since tripled. According to the charts presented by Shanahan, nearly 25% of adults under 30 years old receive and believe the news they find on social media platforms such as TikTok. This age group not only gets its news from these mediums, but also its medical information — which is where the real danger strikes for Shanahan.
Social media is a great thing in the sense that it facilitates and speeds up the distribution of information; however, more often than not, this “information” is disinformation, malinformation or misinformation. Disinformation is information curated specifically to deceive others. Malinformation is information that is based on facts taken out of necessary context, causing confusion and misleading audiences. Misinformation is the product of these two falsehoods. According to Shanahan, “disinformation is the germ” and “misinformation is the infection.”
The circulation of false information is the fault of a series of individuals ranging from politicians, wellness hoaxers, sloppy journalists and even unknowing people who think sharing such information is actually helpful.
“[Once] we interact with information on social media, we become agents of the distribution process,” Shanahan said.
One would likely think the platform spreading the most false information is Facebook; after all, it is widely used across age groups. However, those social media platforms commonly used by adults under the age of 30 are the biggest hubs for false information. Instagram, Twitter and TikTok are all culprits because they require fewer steps to circulate information; it’s as easy as watching a 15 second clip. Allowing a video to play to its entirety on your algorithm can easily influence those of your family members.
“A lot of us don’t read or listen anymore,” said Shanahan, explaining the ultimate root of the issue.
We as a society need to reactivate our critical thinking skills to ensure that we are absorbing and sharing useful information before creating a bias impossible to eliminate. We need to restore trust in the right sources, but that too comes with proper intake of information. If we hear a piece of information come from our best friend versus a stranger, we are more likely to believe our friend due to a particular bond. Therefore, we must be certain that they are receiving information from a reliable source. There is no one person to blame for this epidemic, but we all need to do our part to help protect each other.