The Instagram post looked strange to Amulya Panakam, a 16-year-old high school student who lives near Atlanta. In February, a friend showed her a sensational headline on her phone that declared, “Kim Jong Un is personally killing soldiers who have Covid-19!” Of course, the news wasn’t real. “I was immediately suspicious,” Ms. Panakam said. She searched online and found no media outlets reporting the fake story. But her friends had already shared it on social media.
Ms. Panakam was startled by how often students “grossly handle and spread misinformation without knowing it,” she said. Yet media literacy is not part of her school’s curriculum.
So Ms. Panakam contacted Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit organization based near Boston that works to spread media literacy education. With its help, she wrote to her state and local representatives to discuss introducing media literacy in schools.
The subject was hardly new. Well before the internet, many scholars analyzed media influence on society. In recent decades, colleges have offered media studies to examine advertising, propaganda, biases, how people are portrayed in films and more.
But in a digital age, media literacy also includes understanding how websites profit from fictional news, how algorithms and bots work, and how to scrutinize suspicious websites that mimic real news outlets.
Now, during the global Covid-19 crisis, identifying reliable health information can be a matter of life or death. And as racial tensions run high in America, hostile actors can harness social media to sow discord and spread disinformation and false voting information, as they did in the 2016 elections and may well be repeating in the current elections.
Indeed, Facebook and Twitter recently shut down fake accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, backed by Russia. Twitter said this month that it suspended nearly 1,600 accounts, including some in Iran that “amplified conversations on politically sensitive topics” like race and social justice.
Online misinformation might seem like an incurable virus, but social media companies, policymakers and nonprofits are beginning to address the problem more directly. In March, big internet companies like Facebook and Twitter started removing misleading Covid-19 posts. And many policymakers are pushing for tighter regulations about harmful content.
What still needs more attention, however, is more and earlier education. Teaching media literacy skills to teenagers and younger students can protect readers and listeners from misinformation, just as teaching good hygiene reduces disease.
A RAND report last year said research showed signs that media literacy increases “resiliency to disinformation.”
Erin McNeill, the founder of Media Literacy Now, grew concerned when her young sons were exposed to sexist female stereotypes on television and in video games. She raised the issue to her son’s fifth grade teacher, who voluntarily created a media literacy unit that included analyzing those messages.
Going further, she said, “we need policy so it’s embedded in the education system,” and in 2011 she wrote to Massachusetts politicians and eventually got support from some, notably a state senator, Katherine Clark, who is now a representative in Congress.
Two years later Ms. McNeill founded Media Literacy Now, to help people in other states lobby policymakers. The organization’s online tool kit included templates for emailing to elected officials, alongside samples of policy documents, research papers and videos. Changes were already happening before Media Literacy Now was founded. Since 2008, 14 states have passed legislation supporting some form of media literacy in schools, potentially affecting tens of millions of students.
And media literacy is getting more support. Last year, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a bill calling for $20 million to fund media literacy education.
While that federal bill has little chance of passing, momentum has grown at the state level, and 15 states were considering media literacy bills this year. Media Literacy Now has influenced nearly 30 bills in 18 states since its founding.
In Connecticut, for example, it guided a group of African-American social workers who had founded a company named Welcome 2 Reality to seek new state laws that passed in 2015 and 2017. The state now requires schools to teach safe use of social media and also formed an advisory council on media literacy education that is drafting a baseline report.
Marcus Stallworth, a founder of the social workers’ group who has taught an elective titled “Social Media: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly” at the University of Bridgeport, saw how deeply media affected students. “Social media — anyone can say anything,” he tells them. He also asks them to consider who is disseminating information and what their intent might be. For example, are posts coming from an official source like the governor, or from a potential scammer?
After connecting with Media Literacy Now, the social workers realized that state education policies could have wider impact. Qur-an Webb, a member of Welcome 2 Reality who saw that ordinary citizens could influence lawmakers, concluded that “these are people we vote for — they should meet with us.”
There is no silver bullet for disarming misinformation. But states’ media literacy education policies typically include first steps, like creating expert committees to advise education departments or develop media literacy standards. Next come recommending curriculums, training educators, funding school media centers and specialists, monitoring and evaluation.
States set guidelines for education departments, although local districts often have final control of curriculums.
Even without legislation, teachers can incorporate media literacy concepts into existing classes or offer electives. At Andover High School in Massachusetts, Mary Robb has taught the subject for 19 years. As part of Media Literacy Now’s advocacy, she and her students testified at a Massachusetts State House hearing in 2013.
Ms. Robb now includes media literacy in civics classes, where students might analyze war propaganda and assess the credibility of websites. “‘Fake news’ is not news that you disagree with,” she emphasized.
At Swampscott High School in Massachusetts, Tom Reid has taught media literacy for 15 years and testified at the State House. He pointed out that lessons should focus on critical thinking, rather than being “too focused on simply trying to get students to reduce their screen time.”
Teaching resources already exist. News Literacy Project, for example, has a free 13-lesson online curriculum. Its lessons also cover topics like “deep fake” videos and the role of journalism in a democracy.
Other resources include Ground News, which compares reportage; Adfontes Media, which assesses the reliability of news sources; and Media Education Foundation, which makes documentaries about media’s impact.
Establishing policies is one important step, but Media Literacy Now does not track how they are carried out. “Just passing one bill does not necessarily mean the lessons are being taught,” Ms. McNeill said. “Advocacy still needs to be done.”
Many young people say media literacy is invaluable. Mr. Stallworth’s students said they wished they had learned about the subject earlier.
“Why are we waiting until they get to college?” Mr. Stallworth asked. “It makes more sense to introduce them much earlier.”
Ms. Yee is a journalist who has written about solutions to social problems in the United States, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe.
To receive email alerts for Fixes columns, sign up here.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.