Editorial: Not just a bad joke

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It’s Media Literacy Week in Canada, which puts the focus on something that’s more important than ever in COVID times.

The pandemic has created rich ground for people enthused about promoting conspiracy theories and fear about the virus has made us more vulnerable to invalid but “interesting” information. Not only that, but people of all ages are spending more time online, where anyone can say anything with impunity and keep the confusion, fear and anger simmering away on any number of platforms.

A recent U.S. broadcast and web post claiming that a video shot on Salt Spring Island by an island resident two years ago proves that China is amassing troops as it prepares to invade the U.S. shows how far from reality things can get in the crazy free-for-all that is the media world in 2020. It would be easy to laugh off the claim, but when the piece includes a call for Americans to arm themselves in preparation for an invasion, and includes a map pointing to our little island, it becomes harder to treat the story as a joke.

While most adults should be able to discern between fact and fiction, or at least fact and exaggeration or manipulation, the boundaries between them are becoming increasingly blurred. That is especially so when images are viewed out of context and information is skewed to fit a presenter’s chosen narrative.

There’s nothing new about attraction to “tall tales” and conflict. People are hard-wired to be drawn to the dramatic and to prepare to defend themselves against perceived threats. But unfortunately, as observed in the recently released Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, humans are responding to digital media with a brain that is highly emotional and not particularly rational or sophisticated.

Long-term solutions derived from grassroots, corporate and government levels are needed. But in the meantime, just as everyone needs to educate themselves about the prevalence and methods of scammers in order to avoid being a victim, they need to do the same when it comes to media education and manipulation. Resources such as those found on the mediamanipulation.org or mediasmarts.ca websites are good places to start; and sites like the Solutions Journalism Network offer some respite from the conflict-centred news we are bombarded with on all sides.

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