Opinion: We need a functioning democracy. Teaching media literacy can help

Media literacy / Getty Images

While the internet has increased access to information and has often been a force for good, it has also contributed to making many people misinformed, uninformed and even radicalized.

That's why it is welcome news to see New Jersey become the first state in the country to require schools to teach media literacy to K-12 students. Other states should follow the Garden State's lead.

Students raised on mobile phones have a world of information -- and disinformation -- at their fingertips. Studies show many teens get their news from TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, barely regulated spaces where most anything goes. That is all the more reason why it's essential for schools to teach students how to discern fact from fiction.

Researchers at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education found that 96% of high school students surveyed failed to see how a website's ties to fossil fuel companies could affect its credibility on information about climate change. Two-thirds of students couldn't tell the difference between news stories and advertising, even if it was labeled as "sponsored content."

Alexander Pope, the 18th-century poet and satirist, famously wrote that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." That danger turned all too real when an angry mob of Donald Trump supporters staged a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, fueled by misinformation that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

For months, Trump and his allies promoted the "Big Lie" about election fraud. Two years later, the spread of misinformation remains a threat to democracy here and abroad.

That was underscored by the recent coup attempt in Brazil, which was also driven by lies and conspiracy theories pushed by its ousted far-right president -- who received advice from Trump allies.

It is not just political misinformation that is dumbing down America. The pandemic fueled a range of conspiracies and an assault on science. Much of the misinformation was spread through social media and "news" outlets that put profits above the truth.

The result was a separate pandemic of misinformation.

The fire hose of information distributed on social media is especially pernicious. One study found fake news spreads faster on Twitter than real news. The same goes for Facebook, where a study found misinformation received six times more engagement than factual news.

The spread of misleading information has also increased political polarization and reduced trust in institutions such as the courts, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Adding to the polarization and spread of falsehoods are reckless sites such as Infowars. A jury recently ordered founder Alex Jones to pay $473 million for promoting conspiracy theories surrounding the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a rare case of accountability -- one which came a decade and countless fabricated stories later.

The peril goes way beyond any political divide. Society can't function well, or tackle critical issues such as climate change, when half the public is armed with facts and the other half traffics in lies and conspiracies.

It's troubling enough when a small percentage of the population wrongly believes the moon landing was staged. But it is a whole other level of danger when 147 members of Congress vote to overturn the 2020 election.

A well-informed public is key to a functioning democracy and a civil society. Teaching media literacy is one way to not only inoculate future generations from falling for misinformation but to also help solve the problems left behind by today's leaders.

The Philadelphia Inquirer