Friday, June 6

How to Stop Sucking at the Internet with Critical Thinking

Something that's been grinding my gears lately is the lack of media literacy I see on Facebook. That's not to say that people are illiterate, but they let themselves get swayed by any number of things (sensationalism, a sense of activism or pride, outrage, etc.) and then perpetuate the cycle that is Viral Internet Media and time is a flat circle, we are all going to spin out into the void sharing and resharing the same Photoshopped images of kids with cancer trying to get 100,000 likes and the same 15 year old video of some Russian teens hurting animals forever and ever and ever.

My issue with this is simply that it's not good for us. Sharing misinformation, spreading uninformed outrage, watching and discussing the ugliest parts of our existence without any intention or ability to change those things, it's terrible. It hollows us out, makes us more pliant to have our critical thinking done for us, and it numbs us. It's also super lazy.

I really think that's the root of media illiteracy: laziness. I'm not here to vilify laziness, I'm unemployed and woke up at 10 a.m. today, but when it comes to information we've really got to do better. You don't need to terrify your grandma by sharing an unresearched infographic that claims her water is poisoned just because you didn't feel like doing a little more reading. We really need to spend a little bit more time thinking about what we share and why we share it, if not for the people in our lives then for ourselves.

So, what does it mean to be media literate?
According to the Center for Media Literacy (an educational organization whose mission is to increase media literacy the world over) "To become media literate is not to memorize facts or statistics about the media, but rather to learn to raise the right questions about what you are watching, reading or listening to." Oh. Okay. No, that's valuable, but it's vague. How do you do that? How do you know which questions to ask? Well, let's take this blog post as an example. Where does it come from? Who is writing it? Why are they a reliable source for this information? What’s in it for them? 

Well, I'm not an expert, I'm your friend, someone you know, and I’ve done very little research on this topic. However, I am sort of reliable. I grew up in that sweet spot of the Internet age where I was taught to use it as a tool and not just a place to watch porn and argue with strangers. Also, I've taught research writing in addition to doing lots of my own research. So I'm not an expert, but I would say I'm media savvy. What’s in it for me? Ideally I get to see less garbage on my Facebook feed, but if nothing else I get to use my brain to compose something educational and entertaining, which is nice considering that I've been out of school for a couple weeks now and am feeling pretty listless.

Still, I want to write something that's more informed than "I read the internet and am bored" so I did a little Google search and found there are lots of professional, legit, .org groups who are into media literacy. These people do lots of research and spend a lot of time thinking about what media is and how and why we should teach people to think about it critically. It should be noted that the CML and probably a lot of these media literacy people are very interested in selling curricula and sending people to your business to teach your employees how to Google, so they're not in it for nothing, but that doesn't exactly devalue their work. I don't have a million dollars to spend on a media literacy kit just so I can write a blog post, but I know enough to talk about reliability, so let's start there.

When it comes to consuming media, I think that asking questions about what you’re consuming is the most important tool to help you assess whether or not it is worth your time and the time of others. This isn't just an issue of whether or not you agree with something or enjoy it, but whether or not the information is reliable. The biggest question for me is to consider where the information is coming from. Unfortunately I think that blog culture has really made this a lot trickier. I see a lot of information that comes from shady blogs, and the reason they’re shady is subtle. The website will be a blog, just like this one called ARTS AND FARTS where an idiot posts pictures of her pets and writes about the Free Willy soundtrack, but the blog looks professional and has lots of traffic and ads. Just because you see comments, ads and other signs of web traffic on a website does not mean it’s a reliable source - that actually just means the website makes money. It's also important to note that many of the blog posts on sites like these will be written by regular people, writing about how they swished coconut oil in their mouth twice and their skin looked sort of better. Fine, swish oil in your mouth, but be aware that the link between that action and the perceived result has not actually been proven by a reputable member of any scientific community. It's a blog post, not a peer reviewed journal.

I do think that blogs can be a really good source of information and inspiration, but it's important to consider that there is a big line between anecdotal evidence and True Facts, and you can see it. A good, reliable blog will use and link to multiple sources throughout their text to allow you to confirm their story. Check out this Gawker article from a few months back. Gawker is a blog known for reporting the news with snark, but they do work to keep their readers informed. The post includes not only quotes, but several links to outside sources, including law blogs, the Supreme Court's blog, and other relevant places of interest (including some jokey links). They mean to show you that the information isn't coming from out of nowhere. On the reverse of that, if you check out this article from a popular health and wellness blog, you'll notice there is a lot of information and very little citation for that information. In fact, the only link to another source just leads to another article on the same site. That's a reliability red flag.

My intention in pointing out these differences isn't to bash anyone or drag anybody through the mud, but when it comes to media literacy it is really important that we take the time to consider reliability, especially when it comes to the things we share. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but really this is why kids are getting illnesses we thought had been eradicated: the thoughtless spread of misinformation. If you read an unreliable article (say, something you found inspirational, thoughtful or useful) by all means share it, but talk about why it's valuable to you. Without any kind of reflection, you're just spitting out more flotsam into a dark and dirty sea where people float along without aim or any conception of truth...

We also seem to have stopped valuing effort, or at least our own effort. Instead of taking the time to think through and compose our own opinions, we latch on to Pinterest-y images that vaguely state our thoughts about whatever it is we feel ~passionate~ about. "Like this image if you think this girl is beautiful even though she has no hair from chemo." "When did this kind of celebrity become more attractive than this kind of celebrity?" It's pretty silly, but I do get it. We do it because it's hard to put ourselves out there and compose our own thoughts and feelings. It's harder to stand up and tell everyone "I have something to say!" than it is to simply hit "Share." Composing your own thoughts and feelings makes you vulnerable because they came from your brain, so any critique of those thoughts feels like it's a critique of you. It's scary and stressful to reveal yourself publicly, but it means so much more to those who are listening. Your friends and family would much rather read about your personal journey of self-discovery and kale in your own words than see you reblog Tumblr graphics made by teenagers. Additionally, they'd take your message much more seriously.

This kind of super chill, too easy way to say something without actually saying anything is also the root of what's known as Slacktivism. Essentially, a slacktivist will share all sorts of noble things on social media with the intent of "spreading awareness" but the fact is that awareness on social media, especially in the form of a video or infographic, doesn't do a whole lot for the cause. Fortunately, slacktivism is so easy to combat. Next time you're inspired by some viral video or Tumblr meme, donate $5 to that cause and then write something about it. You get a next level of feel good giving a little bit of money to the thing you care about and then you get to inspire others to do the same with your own words because you ACTUALLY did something besides just hitting "Share" on Facebook. If you can't donate to the thing (which is sometimes the case) Google the issue with the phrase "what can I do to help" and someone will have the answer. That might mean you have to write a letter to a Senator or sign a petition, but relish in the fact that you are, legitimately and actually, making the world a better place by doing so. Or, you know, just continue to perpetuate this cycle of idiocy.

Really, at the end of the day Googling a thing is always your best bet. When I heard about oil pulling for the first time I was intrigued, but after reading a few Google results I decided it wasn't worth my time. Whenever there's some shocking viral video that comes up on my feed or a picture of Bill Gates with a sign that says he wants to give me $300, I Google it or check out Snopes to see if it's real, if it's current, etc. and go from there. It's not worth it to blindly go forth and get pissed or get excited when so many of the things we consume and share are bunk. Again, that's not to say that some of what's bunk isn't valuable to certain people, but it's better to discuss those things with your own words than to keep sharing the same infographics and Pinterest posts.

I think with this post I can come off as a skeptic or someone who is distrustful or stolid, but I'm not. I just like to think about things, and I wish everyone did more of it. I think critically about everything from anime to pop music to the irritated feeling I get when I see young people in my favorite dive bar dancing to Kesha. I think about these things because I want to be a better, more thoughtful person. Being media literate with critique and assessment doesn't have to be about tearing things down or proving yourself through argument; it can simply be about being thoughtful and caring about what we consume and share. Critical thinking isn't a perfect skill anyone has, but it's a tool, a process, a way to continue growth and learning beyond work and school, and it's so important today when we are constantly being bombarded with information and ideas and opinions. I would like to encourage you to become a media literate person and to stop merely reading things, to stop mechanically consuming and sharing, consuming and sharing, consuming and sharing. Ask questions of the things that interest you, discuss what those things mean to you, assess their value, learn more about them. What you actually, personally think and do means more than a graphic or a YouTube video or somebody's stupid blog.

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