You’re probably already media literate – trust your instincts

This week is Media Literacy Week in the U.S., and that means lots of people will talk about how important it is to be able to tell the difference between facts and fake news, especially online.

It’s true. It’s really important. But it’s always been difficult, and it’s becoming harder and harder as we get more and more of our information via social media. This problem is becoming increasingly apparent as we inch closer to the 2020 presidential election. If you aren’t obsessively reading about this (in which case, I envy you) you might have missed that Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook, recently said his platform will not be taking action against political ads that contain lies.

In statements last week, he said he’s really concerned about the “erosion of truth,” but he just can’t let Facebook be the arbiter of right and wrong by taking down political ads that contain false statements. One of his primary arguments is that the FCC requires radio and television stations to give candidates equal time, but Zuckerberg also likes to claim Facebook is not a media company… But it’s this “we’re not the arbiter of truth” piece that feels most troubling to me.

It’s a very familiar argument, similar to what I’ve heard from individuals who’ve decided they don’t trust any mainstream media source: “We can’t trust one arbiter of truth, so we really can’t trust any, and we’ll never now what’s ‘true,’ so why bother worrying about it?” Usually I would get a message like this after gently suggesting to an acquaintance or distant family member that a link to InfoWars or NaturalNews or Prager U might be misleading.

Sometimes journalists get a little resentful about this stuff, which, as a journalist, I get. But I also get not wanting to be condescended to about what’s “true,” and I get that there are so many information sources out there, it can be truly impossible to sift through it all without spending a lot of time and energy. I also get that some people might have that time and energy, but choose to spend it finding things that confirm what they already believe – it’s a free country, so I won’t try to talk you out of it.

But… I think that deep down most people really do care about facts, and really don’t like being lied to. Yes, politics is dirty, and media can be too. But throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in these two areas is dangerous. Media is meant to hold the powerful accountable. Facebook can’t decide if it’s a member of the media, or one of the powerful, or both. It might feel like we, lowly civilians, can’t figure that out for them or do anything about it, but what I want you to think about on this media literacy day is that we can.

Media literacy doesn’t have to imply you’re illiterate about the media, or that you need to take some kind of formal class or workshop to understand what’s going on. For most people – people who want to know what’s true but are just a little overwhelmed – it’s about trusting your instincts.

Does a headline seem too good or bad or crazy to be true? It probably is. You can check by looking at the URL, reading the story, and clicking on links within it.

Are you skeptical of the way something is being framed? That’s great insight. You can read articles by other publications about the same topic to round out your exposure to the story and see what makes sense to you.

You’re still going to suffer from confirmation bias – we all want to believe what we want to believe. But I think being intentional about this, recognizing when we’re maybe understanding something based more on our wishes than the facts in front of us, will make all the difference.

It’s true – existentially, it’s hard to know what’s objectively, 100%, no-doubt true. But that’s not what media literacy is about. It’s about knowing what happened, who did it, and maybe why. Sometimes answering those questions takes more than one tweet or article or even one year of reporting and reading. That’s okay – that’s how it’s always been. Getting comfortable with not knowing some things for sure, but being pretty confident you’re following along, is half the battle.

Resources:

  • Subscribe to The Flip Side, a newsletter that shows you how the right, left, and center are covering various big news items (especially political stuff). It doesn’t always make me feel like I know what’s true for certain, but it helps me understand better the way things are being framed and why.
  • Take this News Literacy Quiz. Fun fact – I didn’t pass the first time I took it myself!
  • Read these 8 ways to tell if a website is reliable.
  • Subscribe to the news sources you use most, and/or sign up for their newsletters so you get the information right in your inbox, rather than through the filter of your social media feed.

 

Frenemy of the People

Are you a real millennial if you don’t have your own podcast? Well…I’m about to find out. Last week I launched Frenemy of the People, a podcast about journalism and trust. It includes conversations with reporters and editors about the work they do, plus broader discussions about “the media,” how readers/viewers/listeners relate to it, and vice versa.

FOTPart

You can hear the teaser here now, and the first episode should be dropping tomorrow, October 1!

This was one of those projects that just kept tugging at me, even when I tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be worth the time/potential blowback. But eventually I felt like I couldn’t not do it, so I did.

I’m still figuring out the whole audio production thing. Believe it or not a big part of my graduate program was focused on audio production, but back then I had access to much better software… which reminds me, if you like the podcast – or even just the idea of it – and want it to be even better, please consider contributing via Patreon.

 

The Facebook Supreme Court

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yesterday Facebook officially launched its Oversight Board, an independent body that will make decisions about what can and cannot be posted on Facebook and hear appeals from people whose posts have been taken down. It’s been compared to the Supreme Court, the top appeals court in the United States justice labyrinth.

Like the Supreme Court, Facebook says the Oversight Board will create precedent, meaning earlier decisions will be used to shape later ones, so they aren’t reinventing the wheel every time. Also like the Supreme Court, the Board will try to come to consensus, but when everyone can’t agree, the majority will make the decision and those who dissent can include their reasons in the final decision.

Unlike the Supreme Court though, the Oversight Board’s members won’t be nominated by the president…I mean CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He’s only appointing the two co-chairs, and it will be up to them to choose the rest of the 11-person board (it will get bigger as time goes on, according to the charter).

According to Facebook:

The purpose of the board is to protect free expression by making principled, independent decisions about important pieces of content and by issuing policy advisory opinions on Facebook’s content policies.

How will they choose what pieces of content are “important” enough to get an official ruling? The process is laid out in a post in Facebook’s newsroom. Cases referred to the Board will be those that involve “real-world impact, in terms of severity, scale and relevance to public discourse,” and that are “disputed, the decision is uncertain and/or the values involved are competing.”

I’m spitballing here, but my guess is that means it woouldn’t include your aunt posting confederate flag memes to her 12 followers, but it might include a politician who posts the same to their thousands of followers. My guess is that other cases will include things like body positivity posts that have been reported and taken down, like this one on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

In a blog post introducing the Board, Zuckerberg said it will start with “a small number of cases,” and admitted there’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s operational. I couldn’t find a method of actually submitting a case, for example.

The big question I ask myself when I see things like this: Do I think it is an empathetic use of technology? Do I think it shows an understanding of – and compassion for – users’ experiences and concerns? And do I think it will encourage users to be more empathetic themselves?

In some ways yes; almost; and maybe.

I do not think Zuckerberg ever expected to be tasked with arbitrating free speech on the internet. But he’s here now, and he’s getting a lot of pressure from politicians of all stripes to do something about harassment, privacy violations, and alleged censorship. Not to mention the fact that some lawmakers (and constituents, and former Facebook employees) want to break up the company’s ostensible monopoly on social media discourse. It’s all eyes on Zuck. His response to the free speech stuff has long been that it’s not his job to make those decisions. He has said he wants governments to make it clearer what’s okay to post online and what’s not. But by virtue of global politics and Facebook’s size and influence, the company is already making these decisions every day whether he likes it or not.

So I think a Supreme Court-style Oversight Board that can make binding decisions he cannot veto is smart. I think it could assuage some of his critics and make certain people feel more comfortable using the platform. I think it’s more self-preservation than empathy, but I think the effect could be an empathetic one if all goes well. But I also think it’s a HUGE undertaking that could go sideways pretty easily.

An internet appeals court is a real, tangible thing Facebook can give us, and it can have real, tangible results – controversial though they will be. Assurance that we won’t be manipulated by Macedonian trolls or bullied by classmates, or that we can post about our lives and ideas without unwittingly entering the thunderdome, is a lot harder to give.

Musings on The American Meme and my Instagram Addiction

In the past 7 days, I’ve spent 8 hours and 35 minutes on Instagram, according to my phone’s Screen Time tracker. That’s an entire workday’s worth of minutes watching celebrities talk and friends feed their babies and advertisers try desperately to get me to buy Allbirds shoes (at this point I’m not buying them on principle). And my usage is down 11% from last week!

I know that I have a problem. It’s not that I can’t go an hour without looking at Instagram. I could put my phone in my purse and stare harder at my computer screen, or go for a walk, or sit and think for a few minutes about what’s actually behind my urge to open the app. I’ve spent enough time thinking about this that I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, though: I’m anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or tired. Instagram has become a little security blanket for me. It’s a place to get lost in other people’s lives for a few (or 30) minutes at a time so I don’t have to consciously think about what’s bothering me or, more importantly, do anything about it.

Yes, this is terrible! I sound like a jerk. The worst part is that now that I’ve psychoanalyzed myself to the point of understanding this, almost every time I open the app I feel guilt on top of it all. I should be treating myself better. I should be more authentic. I should be spending more time on actual work. This spiral is exhausting, and that feeling just makes me want to see if any of the people I follow have posted a new Instagram Story while I’ve been typing this…

I’m not unique in this. Instagram and its fellow social media platforms were built to become indispensable to us in this way, to cause little dopamine rushes that keep us coming back. Maybe that’s sinister, or maybe it’s just business.

On Sunday night I tried to put my phone away for a little while and watch a documentary. Naturally, the doc I chose was Netflix’s The American Meme. It’s essentially Behind the Music, for social media influencers – people who hawk brands and destinations and their own lives for money on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (and formerly Vine, RIP).

The doc follows a few different influencers, some I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was most surprised by how much I learned about Paris Hilton, and what a sympathetic character she was, especially in comparison to some of  the other people in the film. I had heard of comedian(?) “The Fat Jewish” before, and even followed him for a little while until he was outed for stealing other people’s memes and passing them off as his own. When the interviewers asked him about this in the documentary, his answer was basically, “yeah, so?” Among other things, he now runs an apparently very successful wine business. Lesson (from TFJ and several of the others): lying sells!

Is this new? No. But as with a lot of millennial-focused content, what’s unique is the sense of nihilism that permeates this documentary. There’s a feeling that nothing matters, nothing is real, no one actually cares about anything or anyone, so why not spend your nights pouring champagne on women’s bare asses at night clubs and making fun of fat people for money? Why not create elaborate hoaxes with celebrities and trick entertainment news organizations into covering them as if they’re real for attention? Why not do the most ridiculous and physically dangerous stunt you can think of, for followers?

One of the things that struck me most was a quote from the mother of Kirill “slutwhisperer” Bichutsky, who, defending what her son does for a living, said something along the lines of, “he’s like an actor playing a bad person – you don’t judge the actor as if they really are that person.” Don’t we? Where is the line, really? I’m not an influencer, but should I be judged by how I present myself online, or in person? Is there actually a difference? It seems to depend who you ask.

I didn’t want to relate to these people, but ultimately I couldn’t help it. The story of Kirill, a photographer and Instagram influencer who pours champagne on women’s asses and calls them sluts, among other charming things, broke through to my empathic heart despite my best efforts. The Kirill in this documentary is exhausted, ashamed, and depressed. He seems like he’s ready to give up being an asshole for a living and meet someone he can make a life with. He says this is what he does because it’s what he has to do – because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. I feel trapped by social media because it helps me escape, but I can’t imagine feeling like I truly had no other choice.

When Kirill posted something that made it seem like he might be suicidal, fans told him not to kill himself – they still wanted to party. He was 33 when the doc was being filmed, in 2017. After watching, I wondered if he’d hung up his champagne bottles, but a glimpse at Instagram shows that slutwhisperer is alive and well, with a new slogan: Assholes Live Forever.

There’s no big lesson from The American Meme. It probably doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you follow these people. But watching it felt like it might have felt to watch a Behind the Music about a drug-fueled 1970s band in the middle of the 1970s. That’s one of the wildest things about our media landscape now – we can analyze things so much more easily in real time. We can watch ourselves be taken over by “addiction” to social media, realize it’s happening, but not really know how to get away from it.

At the end of last year I finally deactivated my Facebook. I don’t miss it at all. But that’s partly because most of the people I was interested in following there had migrated to Instagram. Over the past year I have also spent a lot more time with people in real life – coffee dates, dinners, book clubs. I wonder, if I gave up on Instagram too, would my obsession turn to in-person hangouts? Or would I finally succumb to Snapchat?

Anyway, it’s been a long day (and a long post). I’m really looking forward to going home, sitting on the couch, and catching up on Instagram Stories. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help me relax. More likely it will make me feel anxious and lacking. But I’ll do it anyway.

Empathy, virtual reality, and anniversary anxiety

I’ve been working on a lot of things lately, and I’m sorry to say that this blog has not been one of them… but it will be again soon, worry not! In the meantime, here’s a look at two stories I recently published:

Can Virtual Reality Change Minds on Social Issues? at Narratively, about how nonprofits and other organizations are using virtual reality to trigger empathy and, ideally, action. There’s still some debate about whether this actually works at scale, but it can’t be denied that people are making some amazing, moving things with VR. Give the story a read, and check out the awesome gif at the top of the page!

A couple of days before the anniversary of the presidential election, I got the opportunity to write about why anniversaries like this are hard for people, psychologically. It turned into a really interesting piece that I think is relevant to the kind of behavioral science stuff I’m thinking about all the time: Why The Election Anniversary Is Hitting You So Hard at Lifehacker

More to come soon!

On Empathy & Time

Hi friends.

My work life has been bananas lately, but today I took a little bit of time to read one of the most recent Brain Pickings newsletters from the incredible Maria Popova. (It came into my inbox 9 days ago, to give you a sense of how busy I’ve been!) In it, she writes about Alan Burdick’s book Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. The entry gets pretty existential (as do most of them in this newsletter!) but this part stuck out to me most:

an internal clock inheres in our capacity for intersubjectivity, intuitively governing our social interactions and the interpersonal mirroring that undergirds the human capacity for empathy.

How are empathy and time – or, at least, our perception of time – connected? How we measure and experience time, Popova writes, is innately social. She writes about a study Burdick cites in his book, in which French neuropsychologist Sylvie Droit-Volet presented people with neutral, happy, angry, and frightened faces on a screen, each displayed for between half a second and a second and a half. She found that happy faces were perceived to last longer than neutral ones and shorter than angry or scared ones, even when all of those faces were shown for the same amount of time. Here’s how Burdick explains the results (emphasis mine):

The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate the pacemaker, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration… Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

I won’t give away much more, but this really fascinated me, and it’s something I’ll have to think about for a while. We so often talk about empathy as if it’s an action, but in many ways it’s an automatic process our brains undergo over and over again throughout every day. To think about that in relation to our very perception of time is kind of mind-blowing! I’ll leave you with one more quote from Burdick, and I highly recommend heading to brainpickings.org to read more!

Our shared temporal distortions can be thought of as manifestations of empathy; after all, to embody another’s time is to place oneself in his or her skin.

 

 

If you actually want debate, you can’t ignore empathy

 

This past Saturday, I turned off my phone. This is something I almost never do, but I felt like I needed a real break from social media.

“It will all be there when you turn it back on,” my husband reminded me.

But after we went grocery shopping, I had a bad feeling. I thought it could just be the fact that I was addicted to social media and was going through some kind of withdrawal, but it was strong, so I turned on my phone. I opened Twitter and immediately saw what I’d missed. Just an hour or so before, a man had driven his car into a crowd of counter-protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally, injuring many and, we’d later find out, killing one.

There’s not much I can say about this that hasn’t already been said. Even in that moment, I knew that anything I posted on social media would just sound hollow, like a repetition of everything on nearly everyone else’s feeds. But I needed to check on a few friends in Charlottesville who I only communicate with via Facebook, so I logged on. They were all OK, thankfully. Once I realized that, I should have logged off and let myself process, but of course that’s not what happened. Over the next few days I was drawn back, again and again, into the same debate: Whether Or Not Both Sides Were At Fault (for what, exactly, I was never able to determine), and Whether Or Not Trump Had Anything To Do With This.

Let me be clear: I am frightened that I know people who equate running someone down with a car and spraying someone with mace. I’m horrified that I know actual white supremacists. I wish that went without saying, but right now, I know it doesn’t. Just to be clear, it is my personal opinion that much of what’s happened over the past several days is not really “debatable.”

What I want to talk about today, though, is this online culture of debate itself. Because every time something like this happens, there are people who seem to button up their shirts, tighten their ties, and step up to the debate podium, assuming anyone they come across is similarly prepared for a capital-D Debate, following all of the same rules they’ve memorized. They argue that this is the only way to proceed. That anything else is uncivil, illogical, a waste of time.

One man (who I’ve never spoken to before) repeatedly called me and another friend “illogical” for stating our opinions about what had happened, and about the broader state of the U.S. right now. We needed to stop being “emotional,” he said, and provide him hard proof of our claims. He rejected requests for him to do the same because, in his words, “you can’t prove a negative.” He seemed to be looking for something that fit a very specific set of parameters that only he understood, and it was clear we could never give that to him. I’ve had many conversations like this over the past several years, and the argument is always that this person is simply trying to have a “civil debate.” I’m not sure most of these people really know what that means if they think it can’t involve emotion or empathy.

I remember learning the rules of debate, and the logical fallacies to avoid, in my 9th grade English class. We had to memorize these things for a test, so some of them stuck in my head. We also had to read, a lot. That was the part I liked best – sinking into the characters in the books and book excerpts we read for each class and discussing the themes and issues that came up in things like Huck Finn and Of Mice And Men and The Gift of the Magi. Imagining what it was like to be those people. This is the time that many of us start to really engage with empathy, studies show. But it can seem like some of my peers only took away the “debate” part of the curriculum.

I remember using the rules of debate in college, especially in my Media Law and International Relations classes, where we talked openly and earnestly about some of the biggest problems of the world. And being a bunch of 19 and 20-year-olds in North Carolina who hailed from all around the country, we didn’t always agree. But looking each other in the face, in a classroom, in front of our peers and teachers, we had another rule that kept things civil: yes, empathy again (how did you guess?). Sometimes this rule was explicit, but a lot of the time it just seemed to come naturally. I know that can be harder on social media, especially when you’re talking to people you barely know (or in some cases don’t know at all). But that’s what has me thinking… if you’re going to demand everyone follow the rules of debate that you learned in high school or college for every Facebook conversation, why not employ all of those rules?

The reality is, just like good business and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive, neither are debate and empathy. If what you really want is a civil conversation, you can start one by starting with empathy. For one thing, you’re more likely to get people to believe what you’re saying that way, and for another, you’re more likely to truly understand the other person’s arguments. And isn’t that one of the first rules of debate? In fact, empathy and perspective-taking are some of the primary reasons schools teach kids to debate in the first place.

I saw this in action earlier this year when I helped judge a debate competition for middle schoolers in Brooklyn. These kids were prepared, and they were ruthless about the rules (they kept me in line!) but they were also unfailingly empathetic. They understood the power of empathy in making their arguments, but also in maintaining their humanity while doing so. It seemed effortless for most of them. If a sixth-grader can do it, we can too.

A lot of the time, of course, it turns out that the people demanding “debate” on forums like Facebook don’t actually want that at all. They just want somewhere to put their anger and defensiveness, or a place to find validation for what they already believe. But those who truly are trying to learn or convince – two actual goals of actual debate – would do well to remember empathy. And that means thinking intentionally about whether or not the person you’re talking to has even consented to debating at all. People use social media for all kinds of things, including debate, but also including emotional expression, reaching out for support, and activism. A bit more empathy can help us see that not everyone is a potential debate opponent – some people are mourning, or struggling, or just working things out for themselves – and can lead to more productive conversations when a mutual debate does take place.