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Q&A: Rocky Mountain PBS gets MediaWise ahead of 2024 elections

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Alex Mahadevan, director of MediaWise at The Poynter Institute, said media literacy is the best tool against misinformation that undermines our democracy.
Photo: Rocky Mountain PBS

In response to the challenge of broad misinformation, Rocky Mountain PBS has committed to fact-checking and advocating for media literacy wherever we meet our audience — online, on social media and through broadcast.

But what is misinformation? Who are fact-checkers and how do they inoculate the public against propaganda? Most importantly, how do we counter misinformation when we see it?

To answer these questions we spoke with Alex Mahadevan, director of MediaWise at The Poynter Institute, a program that teaches digital media literacy and fact-checking to the public.

Mahadevan, who led a training for Rocky Mountain PBS journalists, will continue to guide the newsroom through the launch of Reality Check, a non-partisan educational initiative to create a more media-literate Colorado.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Rocky Mountain PBS invites you to visit our Reality Check page for fact-checks, tips on spotting misinformation and resources.

Colorado Voices

A professional fact-checker on why media literacy matters

Rocky Mountain PBS:  Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. I wanted to establish a few of your guidelines and kind of your thoughts on misinformation for our audience who are also interested in all of this. So can we just start with you telling us a little bit about what MediaWise does and how you define misinformation versus disinformation?

Alex Mahadevan: So MediaWise was founded in 2018, and our goal right off the bat was to help a million teenagers separate fact from fiction online. And the way we do that is by teaching people how to think like fact-checkers. So our whole goal throughout all of these years has been to empower people to use the tools that fact-checkers and journalists use to spot misinformation wherever they see it in their own life.

And so I just used the word misinformation. So a lot of people hear misinformation or disinformation. And so there's some confusion about what those two terms mean.

So misinformation is anything false shared for any reason whatsoever. So this might be: My aunt shares a meme saying that Amazon is offering free $20 gift cards. If you just call this number, you know, it might be totally false and totally a scam, but she's just sharing it because she loves me and she wants to pad my bank account.

So that's misinformation. Disinformation is anything false that's shared on purpose. So that's when you or I, or any other expert, is able to determine, ‘Hey, this person created this piece of false information, this video, this post for a purpose, to scam people out of money, to influence how someone votes just to disrupt our democracy.’

RMPBS: Is there any misinformation that is harmless?

AM: That's a really good question.

RMPBS: You’re the expert.

AM: I'd like to say that there are pieces of misinformation that are harmless. I mean, personally, I'm a big fan of trying to find out more about Florida's skunk ape, which is my home state's version of the Sasquatch. Now, that is, you know, to me, it seems relatively harmless, but the problem is, you know, our reality is in the way we go about our lives.

Every decision we make is based upon the information that we consume — the Facebook post, we see the TikTok videos, you know, the goofy memes that our friends send us. And when you let your guard down for what you think might be harmless pieces of misinformation, that can have ripple effects. You know, the last thing I want to do is encourage people to establish bad habits.

I really enjoy, you know, like The Onion satire. It's great. But the problem is if someone shares an Onion article and they take out the part where it says it's from The Onion. It becomes misinformation and then it's harmful. There are little white lies out there. But the problem is when they start adding up, they can affect your decisions and your friends, family and community.

RMPBS: When you encounter misinformation in the wild, like in your example — if your aunt shared a discount code that did not exist — how do you as a non-journalist, how do you address that in a way that's not condescending or isolating the person who shared it or making them feel like they've done something horrible?

AM: Be a good listener. 

I think what's missing from a lot of the public discourse is empathy right now for anything dealing with misinformation in particular. 

So I think going into a conversation, even if it’s something as kind of harmless as a fake Amazon discount code, going in with empathy and talking to my aunt and asking, you know, ‘Hey, you know, where do you see that post? You know, I really appreciate that you shared that with me. It means you care about me, right? So did you do any research like, did you check out that person's profile?’

And I guarantee she's not going to get all defensive. You know, if you open with empathy and kind of explain to people, ‘Hey, listen, everybody falls for misinformation.’

RMPBS: Earlier, you mentioned that even though fact-checkers will always make one or more parties angry with the fact-check, that, in the aggregate, audiences are really hungry for fact-checks. 

They are really hungry for looking beneath claims and looking beneath things that are shared by, not just politicians, but other people in the public eye.

Can you speak a little bit more about that and about how much more widespread fact-checking is than people may realize?

AM: Yeah, so fact-checking has grown massively since PolitiFact was founded in 2008. There are more than 400 fact-checkers worldwide, and growing. There might even be more than that. The international Fact-checking Network, which is also based at Poynter, has 100-plus signatories from, you know, many countries around the world. We have an annual fact-checking conference.

We have like 500 people there…because what we are determining is, you know in the U.S., falsehoods spoken by politicians have dire consequences. We saw what happened on January Six. We saw what happened with anti-vaccine misinformation during COVID-19. That's in the U.S. You look in other countries and in India, there are, you know, murders that happen based on misinformation spreading on WhatsApp.

I mean, there are coups that can happen based on misinformation. So I think what people have realized is that we need to go beyond traditional journalism and really dig in to finding and debunking falsehoods because they are undermining democracies around the world. And I think that's why you've seen such a growth in that. And I think that's why audiences respond so well.

We do it because, you know, people don't want to be fooled. People don't want to cast a vote and then find out that they've been manipulated. Nobody likes to be manipulated, nobody likes that. So I think people are hungry for fact-checks because they want to know: When I go to the polls, I'm making a decision that's based on my thoughts, not someone who's tried to influence my vote.

RMPBS: Yeah, certainly. It’s why we're taking on media literacy as a company. You monitor a lot of the trends, I guess, in misinformation. What are you seeing ahead of the 2024 election that is concerning you or that you feel that people should be a little bit more on alert about?

AM: Well, a big one as of late are falsehoods about the amount of illegal immigration into the country. I think every election, like clockwork, you start to see misinformation claiming that it's the worst year ever, or the worst week ever, or worst day ever for illegal immigration in the United States. People like to share videos that claim to show the border, people amassed at the border, or caravans, and a great deal of that content is out of context.

So maybe like a video of a group of people at a different border from 10 years ago, it's mis-captioned, it's mis-contextualized. So I think people need to be really on guard when they see and hear politicians talking about immigration or, you know, illegal immigration. That they need to make sure that they're getting the facts. You know, checking in with fact-checkers.

[And] election integrity. I think some politicians have found that calling election integrity into question has become a really potent way to score votes, or at least to make people stay home and not vote. 

So what we will definitely see is claims about, you know, absentee ballots being unsafe or not being counted or being over-counted, or you'll see lots and lots of voting misinformation.

And then the other thing that always concerns me is misinformation about what's happening at polling places. And, you know, is this polling place closed down or are there going to be ICE agents at this polling place? So, really, what concerns me the most is misinformation around election integrity. And how and when and where to vote.

RMPBS: That's a perfect segue into part of your educational drive, which is giving folks the strategies to cope with misinformation when they encounter it in the wild. So can you go over those strategies with us?

AM: Yeah, absolutely. I love journalists and I love fact-checkers, but there's only so many of us. So, unfortunately, there's only so many videos we can debunk. So unfortunately, in this day and age, you know, as personally someone who wakes up and is on X [formerly Twitter] first thing in the morning, watches TikTok and I spend the entire day consuming information on social media.

RMPBS: Wow, that's rough.

AM: It is. Part of it is part of my job. 

But as consumers of social media and users of all online platforms, we kind of have to become our own fact-checkers, you know, because there's just too much content out there. It's not back in the day when you sat down and there were three news anchors you'd watch. Now you're getting your news from a thousand different sources, a newsletter, Substack, you name it.

So you have to be able to be your own fact-checker. So to start, the first thing that I think is really important to do is practice something called lateral reading.

So when you see a video or you see a meme or you see a post online instead of just, you know, reading vertically or just scrolling and watching the video, what you're going to do is you're going to think about that video.

You're going to bounce to another tab, use a search engine, plug in some keywords and try to find out if that video is true. If that post is legit, [find] where it originally came from. Open another tab. Google who posted it. Try to find out who's behind that post. And you end up reading laterally, you know, so you're reading across tabs to find more information about that post.

So instead of just staying in one tab, you're going to do multiple tabs. The other key is something called click restraint. So click restraint is really important because when you are using a search engine to find out whether that video of the border is real, you want to make sure you're clicking on the best search result you get.

Instead of clicking the first thing you see at the top of those search results, scroll down. See if you recognize a news source. See if you recognize your local PBS station. Do you see an Associated Press article? Do you see a PolitiFact fact-check? So using click restraint and really scanning search results is really important as well.

RMPBS: You're basically a mini reporter.

AM: Turning people into mini reporters, and that's the entire basis of the MediaWise program. It was based around research from the Stanford History Education Group, and they studied fact-checkers, academics and students. And what they found is academics and students were actually both pretty bad at spotting misinformation. Fact-checkers naturally were [good]. So they tried to figure out how fact-checkers actually navigate the Internet.

So they read laterally, they use click restraint. They try to find out who's behind the information. They read multiple sources. So really, everything we teach is based on trying to turn you into your own fact-checker.

RMPBS: So before I let you go, what is what you hope is the main takeaway for folks to have about media literacy and how they consume news?

AM: Well, the main takeaway is every decision you make from the breakfast cereal you get at the grocery store, to the vote that you're going to cast in this coming election, is based on everything you see online. 

And if you are consuming misinformation, you're being manipulated into making decisions that don't align with what you believe. So, by employing media literacy, by making sure you share good information, by talking to your friends and family about the importance of facts, you are protecting yourself.

You're protecting your friends, your family, and your community. And you are being a good digital citizen.

RMPBS: Beautiful. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. And we will be checking in with our project. Thank you.

AM: Excited to see you launch.

Gabriela Resto-Montero is the managing editor at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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