Learning news literacy skills can help readers spot real ‘malinformation’

Malinformation has a seed of truth, or makes selective use of facts, but is repackaged and shared with the specific intent to cause harm.

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students work together to solve an exercise at MisinfoDay, an event hosted by the University of Washington to help high school students identify and avoid misinformation, Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Seattle. Educators around the country are pushing for greater digital media literacy education

Students work together at an event hosted by the University of Washington to teach ways to identify and avoid misinformation.

AP Photos

The recent column by Jacob Sullum “Fight against ‘malinformation’ is censorship by government proxy,” offers a wealth of examples about why it’s crucial to be news literate — to have the skills to identify credible sources and separate fact from fiction. Sullum’s piece relies on logical fallacies, motivated reasoning, and propagandistic techniques that are easy to learn how to spot so that you’re not easily misled by eloquent bad actors.

Propaganda in the modern era is not as obvious as the WWII posters many of us studied in our history classes. The methods can be subtle, like twisting definitions to fit a position, as Sullum did when he describes malinformation: It isn’t just “inconvenient” information, as the author would have us believe. Malinformation has a seed of truth, or makes selective use of facts, but is repackaged and shared with the specific intent to cause harm. Cherry-picking true “breakthrough” COVID cases and using them to scare people away from a safe and effective vaccine is one example of “malinformation.” Cherry-picking is also a common logical fallacy.

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Another logical fallacy is that of omission. When it comes to the study, Sullum doesn’t mention that the editor-in-chief of the Cochrane Library told the AFP recently: “Many commentators have claimed that a recently-updated Cochrane Review shows that ‘masks don’t work’, which is an inaccurate and misleading interpretation.” By consulting multiple sources, a news literacy skill, it’s easy to find that this study has been widely misrepresented by COVID-19 skeptics.

Why would Sullum ignore this? Let us consider the source — another foundational news literacy skill. It’s clear from Sullum’s body of work that he engages in motivated reasoning. He selects, interprets, and distorts information to further his anti-government views, rejecting and ignoring factual, contradictory information. Which leads to another news literacy lesson: Skepticism is healthy, but be aware when sources push cynicism in institutions – it often drives people toward conspiratorial claims.

The marketplace of ideas sometimes includes misinformation, but Sun-Times readers should remember the Latin phrase “caveat emptor” or “Let the buyer beware.” In the end, Sullum presents us with a false dilemma: ideologically-driven censorship or unfettered-at-all-costs speech. Fortunately, using news literacy skills can help you see through it.

John Silva, senior director of professional and community learning, News Literacy Project

CTA does nothing about smoking on trains

There is smoke in every car of the train I’m on right now. A man was smoking in the car while the CTA employees were cleaning it!

A CTA employee told me there was nothing they could do. The police dont do anything when they call them.

Another employee had to hold the train while I tried to find a car I could breathe in.

Why are all passengers’ health being endangered by people who are blatantly breaking the law? And will keep doing so because nobody is doing anything about it!

Police are always looking for more funding, more funding. For what? When they can’t solve a simple problem like this?

Donna Thomas, Oak Park

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