A Case for Media Literacy

Paula LaBrot

About 12 years ago, I gave an assignment to my critical studies film class after viewing “Motorcycle Diaries,” a biopic about Che Guevara, starring dreamboat Gael Garcia Bernal. For most of my millennial students, this film would have been the only source from which to form an opinion of Guevara. I asked my students to research the “real” Che Guevara on the internet. The results were startling. Half the class brought in glowing bios, and half the class brought in scathing portrayals. The lesson evolved from a verification assignment to an in-your-face challenge as to what one could believe on the internet.



According to Professor Sam Weinberg of Stanford University’s History Education Group, “Increasingly, the source from which people form their opinions about the world and its issues is the digital information they are exposed to.” Wineberg acknowledges, “The most critical question facing people today is not how to find information. Google has done a great job with that. The real question is whether that information, once found, should be believed…. What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checkers, and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us.”

This is a big, hideous problem, because, today, people’s critical thinking skills are often underdeveloped.



Because of misinformation, History, that wellspring of experience from which we can learn so much, has become corrupted on an unprecedented scale. Rumors run wild, sometimes with mortal consequences.

Time reports, “In India, false rumors about child kidnappings spread on WhatsApp have prompted mobs to beat innocent people to death.”  

Stock markets tumble when false stories go viral. People die because of medical misinformation. People are reading and believing false news at least 20 percent of the time, according to MIT cognitive scientist David Rand.    

Just because a site is popular, does not make it truthful. Most people think the most credible information they get is what comes up first on a search. In fact, you can pay to get your information to come up first, or you can pay people to click on your information so many times, it comes up first. And people are such lazy coconuts! They pass stories along without even vetting them. Wineberg’s team discovered people regularly retweet links without even investigating them. Time reports a Pew poll found nearly a quarter of Americans had shared a made-up news story.



First, search the website you are visiting.  Google it. See if it is verified. Search the authors. Search the resource lists at the bottom of the articles. Be alert for suggestions of bias.

For fact checking, start with Google or another search engine. I use DuckDuckGo.com. You can use Google Scholar, too. Snopes.com is okay to identify misinformation, rumors, and urban myths, but not so good for real-time issues. In my opinion, there is no unbiased political fact-checking site. You can use Youtube to hear speeches directly.

Our wonderful libraries have databases, and librarians are among the most valuable verification sources.

Study the principles of logic, so you are prepared to recognize persuasion techniques like ad hominem attacks, fallacies, and red herrings.



Here are a couple of terms you should know:

Click Bait—A catchy headline, captioned photo, or video that drives you to click on a web page. The click matters, not truth, because the more clicks, the more ad revenue. The headline gives you only enough calculated, emotionally charged information to make you want more. Facebook Newsroom reports, “When we asked people in an initial survey what type of content they preferred to see in their News Feeds, 80 percent of the time people preferred headlines that helped them decide if they wanted to read the full article before they had to click through.” (Is Bernal-Che a metaphor for click bait? )

Deep FakesRobert Chesney and Danielle Citron of Lawfare define deep fakes as “digital impersonation, fueled by artificial intelligence. Machine-learning algorithms combined with facial-mapping software enable the hijacking of one’s identity—voice, face, body. Deep fake technology inserts individuals’ faces into videos without their permission. The result is “believable videos of people doing and saying things they never did.”

It’s Up to UsMedialit.org provides five questions to ask when you are researching in order to get straight, trustworthy information off the internet amid all the manipulation and learn how to think! Who created this message? What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message differently from me? What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in—or omitted from—this message? Why is this message being sent?

Finally, keep your mind open. Keep judgments evidence-based. Avoid tribal, polarized thinking. Media literacy is empowering. Power to the people!

Vamos a ver!


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace. plabrot@messengermountainnews.com

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