Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
Featured Article: “‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation” by Max Fisher
Have you been told to think twice before sharing articles or political memes on social media? Or to use media literacy skills to fact-check articles before sharing them? While these tools are important, recent research has indicated that social media is not the only reason that misinformation spreads so quickly and viciously.
In this lesson, you will learn about a new study that shows the power of social and psychological factors in the spread of misinformation. Then you will see if you live in a political bubble and consider if that might contribute to the spread of misinformation where you live. Or you will participate in a citizen science project designed to fight misinformation.
Read the first paragraph of the featured article:
There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.
Had you heard any of the above rumors before reading the article? Do you remember where you heard it or who told you? Did you believe them? Why or why not?
Are there any other rumors that you’ve read online or heard friends talking about? How did you know they were false?
How concerned are you about misinformation online? Why?
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. Why does Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, believe that misinformation persists despite widespread access to good information?
2. Describe “ingrouping” in your own words. What is one example of ingrouping causing misinformation from the last year or two?
3. How have greater partisan divisions created hostility between the two political parties? What is an example of misinformation caused by social and political distrust and polarization?
4. In what ways can high-profile political figures contribute to misinformation? Share an example of a political leader who created, or encouraged supporters to believe, misinformation.
5. How does the psychological effect of “social reward” create a dynamic in which misinformation is spread using social media?
6. What is your reaction to the following paragraph from the article?
“We have found that Twitter users tend to retweet to show approval, argue, gain attention and entertain,” researcher Jon-Patrick Allem wrote last year, summarizing a study he had co-authored. “Truthfulness of a post or accuracy of a claim was not an identified motivation for retweeting.”
When you share something on social media, how much time, if any, do you spend verifying the accuracy before sharing? What steps do you take to verify the information?
7. What are the dangers of this culture of misinformation?
Option 1: Do you live in a political bubble?
One of the themes explored in the featured article is the power of feeling you’re part of an “ingroup” and the experience of a separate “nefarious outgroup.” The article says that one of the biggest causes for misinformation currently may be the “rise in social polarization.”
How relevant do you think social polarization is in your community? Do you feel as though you live in an area where people generally have the same political beliefs? Or do you feel you’re an outlier, politically, where you live?
To see how similar or different your community is politically, spend some time looking at the first section of the article “Do You Live in a Political Bubble?” Start by entering your home or school address to see the political party of the thousand voters closest to you. Then look closely at the bubble generated by the interactive: What do you notice and wonder about the political beliefs in your neighborhood?
Scroll down to see a map of the political demographics in a nearby community. How similar or different are they from where you live? What factors do you believe contribute to these demographics?
Now return to the questions above: How much of a role do you believe social polarization plays in your community? Do you think that the political bubble you live in contributes to the spread of misinformation in your area? Why or why not?
Option 2: Citizen science project
If you are 16 years or older, you can participate in Public Editor, a citizen science project, where you will be asked to label misleading or inadequately supported information in news articles. To participate you will need to use a Google Chrome browser, create a free account and watch a three-minute video about how the system works. Then you will be asked to evaluate a sentence from an article for its bias, and support your evaluation with evidence from the passage.
Spend 10 to 15 minutes on the project. Then reflect on this question asked by Discover magazine in response to the Public Editor project, “Can citizen science help fight misinformation and biased news coverage?” After participating in the experiment, what do you think? Did you feel that you were helping to combat misinformation through your assignments?
Do you think more people should participate in Project Editor and other similar citizen science projects to fight misinformation? Or do you think there are more effective ways to address this issue?
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