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Fort Lewis College professors dig into nuances of media literacy

Instructors discuss how to detect misinformation, disinformation at Durango Public Library
Justin McBreyer, professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College, discusses the nuances between misinformation and disinformation on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, at the Durango Public Library. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

Political news articles, cable television programs and radio broadcasts are constantly vying for the attention of American audiences. Social media feeds are always recalibrating themselves to give users what they think they want to hear, see and read.

Sometimes, information is accurate, helpful and broadens one’s understanding of the world.

Sometimes, it’s a bunch of “malarkey.”

At least that’s how Fort Lewis College philosophy professor Justin McBreyer, the author of “Beyond Fake News,” described less than stellar news stories at a seminar about misinformation, disinformation and media literacy on Thursday at the Durango Public Library.

McBreyer was joined by fellow FLC professors Michele Malach and Erich Riesen. Together, the trio discussed the nuanced differences between misinformation and disinformation.

In short, misinformation is false information the distributor does not know is false. It’s unintentionally inaccurate, and it appears on Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) feeds all the time. It even appears in the pages of The New York Times and in content from every other media outlet out there.

As McBreyer put it, “if someone says that the vaccine will in fact give you a tattoo of Bill Gates when you get it, and they really believe that, that’s misinformation.”

Michele Malach, professor of English at Fort Lewis College, discusses the internet being saturated with nonstop online headlines and images spewing misinformation and disinformation on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, at the Durango Public Library. (Matt Hollinshead/Durango Herald)

Disinformation, on the other hand, is false information the distributor knows is untrue. In other words, lies.

Fox News pundits slandering Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems with unhinged and completely false accusations that the election technology company changed votes from former President Donald Trump to then-candidate Joe Biden is a costly example of disinformation.

In that example, the cost is about $787.5 million, which Fox agreed to pay Dominion after it settled in “a lawsuit that would have exposed how the network promoted lies about the 2020 presidential election,” as reported by The Associated Press and also referenced by McBreyer.

During a discussion period after the three professors made their main points, people in the crowd posed questions and shared their experiences navigating social media, Google, YouTube and the rest of the internet.

One woman asked, “How do we go about discerning the truth of what we are being given as news?”

The question initially made the panelists squirm in their seats.

McBrayer offered two points of advice.

“Monitor how you feel” and “read laterally,” he said.

“If it’s pulling at your emotions and telling you what you want to hear and you feel yourself getting excited or emotional or whatever, you are being played. Pay attention to that,” McBrayer said.

On his second point, he said news consumers should read multiple publications’ stories about the same subject. He subscribes to The Washington Post, but also reads what The Wall Street Journal has to say about the same stories covered by the Post.

“It will give you a key, you know, into how both sides are latching onto different sides of the stories,” he said. “And I think that helps you to somewhat read between the lines and try to figure out what’s really going on. Like a Venn diagram, you know, where things kind of overlap.”

Malach, an English professor at FLC, said older generations have the advantage of “a lifetime of accumulated knowledge” when it comes to identifying misinformation and disinformation.

She said younger people don’t read newspapers. Rather, they are scrolling through Instagram.

She said people should consider their sources of news stories.

“Who is the publisher? Who was the owner? Who are the people writing the stories? What kind of language are they using? Do they use quotes? Because a lack of quotes is a terrible, terrible sign,” she said.

She also said parents need to teach their children how to do the same, because the online generations don’t care about “news,” although they do want information. But they might not always vet their sources.


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