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: former President 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 had not been 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.
Gen Zers are defined by social media because it is deeply embedded into our identity. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey, 97% of those ages 13 to 17 use at least one of seven social media platforms.
For Gen Zers, social media is a place 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.
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.
Researchers have found that children as young as 9 had seen anti-science and anti-vaccine videos on TikTok.
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 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.
Fortunately, this is a concept 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.
Eight more states including Massachusetts are considering bills that would require media literacy. One antidote to misinformation is understanding what it is and how to combat it.
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. This column was written for the Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.