Fifty years ago, the national networks CBS, ABC and NBC dominated television screens in America and were the primary way voters obtained information: Each network, along with newspapers and radio, told its facts first, and all agreed on what the facts were. That meant Americans had a shared understanding of the truth — which is what led to the erosion of both Democratic and Republican public support for then-President Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation.
But the time of Democrats and Republicans agreeing on facts is no more. In the early 1980s, cable news networks emerged. The late ’80s and early ’90s brought the internet, and Six Degrees became the first social media platform later in the ’90s. With each development, avenues for information grew more abundant. People weren’t confined to newspapers and the three news stations for information. Instead, we gained the ability to access information anywhere — and with less and less scrutiny.
As access to information without oversight expanded, misinformation skyrocketed. Readers, viewers and listeners became vulnerable to believing falsehoods. Consider the aftermath of the 2020 election: Donald Trump took to social media and, with the help of far-right platforms and news networks, at one point persuaded nearly 70% of Republicans to believe that Joe Biden was not duly elected president, a poll by Suffolk University and USA Today found. But there is hope for the truth to prevail — and our effort begins by providing students the tools necessary to effectively navigate the information ecosystem and discern fact from fiction.
I am a member of Generation Z, and we are more plugged in than any previous generation. Born between 1997 and 2012, members of Gen Z do not know of a world without social media and the internet. From the day we were born, we instantly became connected with each other virtually. With 97% of those ages 13 to 17 using at least one of seven social media platforms, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey, Gen Zers are defined by social media because it is deeply embedded into our identity.
Gen Zers do not simply use social media to connect with others — we use it to create change. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Social media became an essential tool for young people to organize and promote information about racial justice and equality. Using features such as Instagram’s story or short posting, digestible videos on TikTok, young people recognized that social media platforms are one of the most effective ways of getting information to others quickly and easily.
However, as savvy as Gen Zers are with social media, we are not immune to the effects of misinformation. While there are plenty of young people using social media to promote facts, there are just as many employing social media to promote lies. In fact, researchers have found that anti-science and anti-vaccine videos on TikTok have reportedly been viewed by people as young as 9 years old. Coming upon misinformation while scrolling through social media is dangerous — no matter the age.
Misinformation will never be extinguished — especially in the free-for-all of undermoderated social media platforms and channels such as Fox News whose bottom line depends on retaining an audience that believes its extreme statements. To counter this, we should look to the classroom. For students like me and members of future generations who will spend a lot of time online — and therefore will be particularly susceptible to seeing misinformation — information literacy classes could be exactly what is needed to help young people become better stewards of information.
At its core, information literacy classes would be designed to give students critical thinking skills for analyzing information on the internet: In other words, knowing how to evaluate information, distinguish between a lie and a fact, and conduct a fact-check. And fortunately, this is a concept that is underway across the country. Illinois became the first state in the country to require an information literacy class for high schoolers starting with the 2022-23 school year. Better yet, eight states including Massachusetts and Florida are considering bills that would require media literacy education. One antidote to misinformation is understanding what it is and how to combat it.
Reaching consensus on basic facts is becoming more difficult — to the point in which democracy has become precarious. It will take all hands on deck to reverse course, and the best place to start may just be in the classroom — endowing young people with the skills to identify lies whenever they encounter them.
Information literacy classes for students may well be our nation’s best hope of returning to an era of mutually agreed upon truths.
Victor Shi is a sophomore at the University of California at Los Angeles. He was elected as the youngest delegate for Joe Biden in 2020. He co-hosts the “iGen Politics” podcast.
Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.