How Can Media Literacy Save our Democracy?

Can media literacy save our democracy?  You bet.

Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate.  And the more time I spend on social media platforms, the more concerned I get about our definition of “informed”.

Neil Postman said we were the “best entertained, least-informed society on earth”.  He wrote this in 1985, before cable news, before Twitter, before Facebook.

And with more people than ever getting their news from Facebook and Twitter,  the role of media literacy and critical consumption of this material could not be more important.

There are a few things to consider when consuming “news” via social media channels:

  • The sheer volume of material makes it challenging to determine what is real, meaningful & true
  • Things are created that LOOK legit
  • We believe what we want to believe.

Let’s look at these one-by-one:

Volume:  2.5 Quintillion bytes of data are created daily.  Safe to say that some of that data is inaccurate or misleading or just plain wrong.  But who could go through all that to make the determinations?  Like finding a needle here:


Appears Legit:  It’s very easy to create online information that looks legitimate.   Whether it be fake “news” sites or social media posts, the ease of creation just adds to their proliferation.  How can we tell what’s legit?

michelle obama js

Sometimes posts will use real, actual photos but change the situation.  Check this one out – it’s a real photo, but from a different situation.  Using real photos adds to the “credibility” of the post.


This is TOTALLY not scientific but I also think “MEME FONT” adds to credibility of an image.  There are factual inacuracies in this image, but it was shared 35,000 times on Facebook when I copied it.


Our personal biases:  Many times, I think we share information that we WANT to be true.  We want to believe the best of the politicians we support, and we want to believe the worst of those we don’t.   I’m just as guilty as the next person.  For example, because I tend to believe the worst of cable news, I thought this was legit:

oregon shooter truth

A simple search showed me that CNN never actually showed a photo of Chris Harper-Mercer.  But this was visually believable enough – and I wanted another reason to distrust cable news – so I nearly shared it.   If a social media user feels very strongly about immigration, they might believe this following image without checking —

ice cube

When in reality, this “Muslim convert ISIS Soldier” is actually the rapper Ice Cube.

Here’s a more recent example:

obama vets

The “ETF News” site banner looks legit.  The terms “breaking” and “news” lead to the sense of urgency.  It looks like news.  And if the reader is pre-disposed to think the worst of President Obama, then the reader is more likely to believe the story.  But, it’s not correct.

Guess which one is legit? Guess which one went viral?
           Guess which image is legit? Guess which one went viral?

Images carry visual primacy and warrenting value.  When images are validated over and over (like shared 35K times on Facebook) they become more believable.  Our brain sees evidence of truth.   Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow“, describes two “systems” of thinking.    System One thinking is our initial reaction, our gut instinct.  It’s quick.  System Two thinking, however, involves thought, reflection and research.

The internet is a playground for System One thinking.  We need to be aware of how the volume and appearance of online political messages as well as our personal biases keep us from being truly informed.  Some ideas:

  • check and acknowledge the source of the material
  • Google Reverse Image Search is your friend
  • acknowledge your own baggage when it comes to political information

Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate.  If we are to acquire political information from social media channels, we must be able to critically evaluate it.  The health of our democracy depends on it.

(Here’s a Livebinder I did – “Tools for Verifying Online Information” – full of goodies)

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