2020 and the early events of 2021 have shown us that where and how we get our news, along with our ability to distinguish factual information from misleading or incorrect information, can make a big difference in our world. From public health to politics and beyond, the flow of information into our lives influences our thinking, behaviors and decisions.
This matters at all levels of public life, but especially at the local level for a community like Wayne County. Gossip about whether a certain store or restaurant is open or closed (and why) can seriously affect that business and their employees. How accurately and authentically we might represent an elected official’s words and actions can affect the confidence that residents have in the people who represent and lead us. Conversations about the science of a virus and the precautions needed in response can literally turn into life and death decisions by the people around us. And so on.
Helping our community slow the spread of misinformation and pay more attention to what’s based in fact is a small but important way we can all contribute to a better quality of life for everyone here.
So what are some specific actions each of us can take to reduce misinformation in 2021?
Here are five to consider:
- Don’t amplify or circulate gossip, speculation and unsourced statements. Whether it’s a comment on social media or an article link that seems interesting, if there’s no supporting information from first hand sources, journalists or scientists to help verify it, don’t spread it around. (Don’t even share it just to say that it’s suspect or incorrect! Repeating false info still reinforces it, and tells the algorithms at Facebook and other social media platforms that something might be worth reading. If you must, take a screenshot and share that instead.)
- Leave Facebook groups that trade in speculation. Some people in the Wayne County area get their news and information from what they see go by on Facebook, and there are now several Facebook groups that actively engage in circulating speculation, gossip and misinformation about our communities. It may be interesting to watch this go by, but if you allow your Facebook profile to be a member of one of these groups, you are essentially lending it credibility. Facebook will even show your Facebook friends the fact that you are a member of that group, and may suggest that your friends also join. You can help take the wind out of some of these problematic conversations by leaving those Facebook groups behind and avoiding any engagement with their conversations.
- Support local journalism. Reporters at the Western Wayne News and the Palladium-Item use journalistic standards for finding and sharing information about Wayne County. They are expected to confirm any significant news with multiple sources, to fact check any claims that might be important, and to serve the interest of keeping people informed with accurate information that’s placed in proper context. You don’t have to agree with everything they report or what they report on to support their work through a paid subscription, if you’re able.
- Get in the habit of asking each other for more information behind the news and opinions we are sharing. If we only ask our friends and family, “can I see your source on that?!?!” when something is controversial, it can feel like a jarring attack. But if we get in the regular practice of encouraging the sharing of data and information behind an assertion someone makes, even one we find perfectly agreeable, then it will be less jarring to do it when the stakes are higher. Here, practice with me: “Hey, that’s an interesting theory! Do you have any more information about the thinking behind it?” Or, how about this one: “It sounds like I should read more about that, can you point me to the reports you’ve been reading?” Not too hard, right? Even if they can’t share a source or the source is wrong, it creates a stronger foundation for future conversations.
- Consume at least one information source that shares viewpoints you disagree with. Go through the mental exercises of understanding what exactly is being said, why you might disagree with it, what process someone might have used to come to that viewpoint, what evidence there is to support or refute it, and so on. It may feel frustrating or even futile, but keeping that critical thinking “muscle” in good shape will help us have better conversations with our neighbors and serve us well in the long-term. And, since we may be asking others to do the same critical examination of what they’re sharing, it can also build our own empathy for what that process feels like.
These are just five ways to help reduce the spread of misinformation in our community. They’re small but meaningful actions that, if we all tried to do at least a few of on a regular basis, might help all of Wayne County be a better place to live. In some cases, they might even help save lives.
Do you have other suggestions for reducing the spread of misinformation in our area? Please share in the comments!
Robert U Green
I would enjoy seeing this printed on the op-ed page or as a letter to the editor of the Pal-Item.
Great advice. It’s very hard to ask people for their source of information without sounding smug or attacking. Tone is very hard to convey in text especially on social media where everyone’s guard is up. I think the examples you shared will go a long way. It’s hard to take offense when asked that way and at the same time it puts it back in their hands to hopefully think about what they’ve posted, shared or propagated. Nice article.
Chris, I always enjoy and appreciate your pieces. This one prompted me to subscribe to Western Wayne News and reminded me that it’s important to be.oprn to listening to others’ opinions even when (maybe especially when) they differ from mine, and to more carefully seek truth and facts. For me, this political climate and pandemic have made it very difficult to trust the media or those in leadership positions. Thanks for your thoughtful writing and fir being a force for good in our community.
This is generally good advice. I think I’d like to add a few sources.
1. AllSides offers news stories from left, right and centrist news organizations. If you are looking to compare coverage of an issue from multiple perspectives, this is a handy tool to use.
2. Definitely support local news sources! It’s local news that keeps us connected to our communities and allows us to remain informed about the issues that affect us every day. While national news is important, it’s our local news that gets deep into our local governments, schools, sports and events.
3. PEN America recently put out a guide to helping people talk with friends and family about misinformation. It’s well worth a look.
4. There are resources available to help expand your knowledge of real and fake news. Factually is a weekly newsletter from the Poynter Institute, an organization which focuses on media literacy. The McGill Office for Science and Society debunks science-based claims in blogs, videos and a newsletter.
This is a much needed set of steps to disrupt the spread of fake news. Thank you for writing it.
Awesome suggestions, KT! I added links to the resources you mentioned where appropriate. Thank you.