The Infodemic Wildfire: Our Ethical Responsibility of Media Literacy

Photo by: Carlos Jimenez

What is Digital and Media Literacy?

According to Common Sense Media, an independent, nonprofit, researched-base website designed for parents and educators to keep kids safe and informed in a media-driven world, digital/media literacy is “the ability to effectively find, identify, evaluate, and use information” and “specifically applies to media from the internet, smartphones, video games, and other nontraditional sources. Just as media literacy includes the ability to identify media and its messages and create media responsibly, digital literacy includes both nuts-and-bolts skills and ethical obligations.”

Since beginning to teach college composition courses right in the midst of the 2016 election cycle, I have made media literacy a prominent part of my curriculum. It has, of course, evolved each semester as the focus on identifying “fake news” articles and websites pivoted to a focus on understanding sensationalism and credibility. Somehow, through this pandemic, the importance of media literacy has not only ballooned, but shifted again as we wade through misinformation and conspiracy outbreak in a post-truth era.

Why is Media Literacy so important?

Media literacy education has never been more important. It is our responsibility as free citizens to diligently work to identify bias in our own media consumption, especially before we hit “share.” Bias is engrained within human nature—it’s what we do with it that matters. If we ignore our own biases and feed only agreeable information into our echo chambers to stay comfortable and affirmed, we remain ignorant. However, if we exploit the biases of others for personal gain or affirmation and inflict harm, or perpetuate that harm by proxy, bias can be especially dangerous.

“Truth” is not defined by “What I want to hear.” Think: do you only go to doctors that tell you you’re healthy? Do you choose to only listen to the experts that support your worldview? Have you ever explored your own personal narrative to determine WHY you hold that worldview in the first place, and then actively break it down to understand the gaps within your own vulnerabilities to exploitative media?

This misinformation crisis can be analyzed, and has been reflected upon in American society, many hypothesizing how we began thinking that we know more than experts—and while research is within my personal expertise as an academic and educator, the very beautifully democratic way we create and access information has become our own ouroboros, exploited by those in power or those that want to be. Between YouTube, Fox “News” commentators, and our reality show president, the information sector of the internet has evolved into a full-on ratings grab. Like kids taking tide pods for likes and viral fame, misinformation is used as a tool for personal and financial gain, accomplished through textbook manipulation tactics often used by abusers, cult leaders, and snake oil salesmen. They prey on the need for promise, and then position themselves as the only one to believe, feeding into vulnerability and ego simultaneously. Viral misinformation has spread like a wildfire since the pandemic, and they all know it: it’s a seller’s market.

The issue is, it’s no longer just your retired family member watching Fox News for 10 hours a day who has become brainwashed by extremist propaganda that you can politely unfollow on Facebook. The radicalization of media consumers on all platforms is as widespread as the global pandemic itself, the dark corners of the internet becoming more accessible and mainstream than ever. By taking advantage of the phenomenon that drives people to want to “go viral” (irony not lost on me), those putting a megaphone to their mouths and spreading misinformation will get people killed. As a result of this phenomenon, likely fueled by more people at home consuming news while zipped into their technological devices, many succumbed by curiosity, fear and a desperation to make sense of the world, there have been several official statements condemning misinformation that has spread by doctors and medical professionals who need to clarify things. This is dangerous. This is a public crisis.

Our Personal Responsibility

However, all is not lost: we are still free citizens and our access to information allows us the opportunity for social responsibility. As a teacher, I am readjusting and adding a LOT of material for my classes in the Fall—I think I have added about a dozen resources, lesson plans, and approaches to necessary media and digital literacy in the past two weeks and Spring semester hasn’t even ended. One resource that can certainly assist in a communal agreement to liberate our society from fake news and predatory misinformation is this Media Literacy Certificate from PBS. While this simple certification process is created for educators (and librarians, tutors, etc) and targeted at K-12 teachers specifically, I believe can be of great value for everyone: teachers of all levels, parents, those of us who have friends or family members who consume entertainment news or turn to YouTube for “news,” as well as for ourselves to stay informed and safe as regular media consumers. It is FREE and there are also some great learning resources in general on this landing page through the KQED Media Academy.

Other really useful sources include: the Teaching Tolerance website, which takes digital literacy a step further to specifically combat injustices in the classroom by empowering young learners with the tools needed to gather information safely and ethically; and Metabunk, a site “dedicated to the art and pastime of honest, polite, scientific investigating and debunking.” As conspiracy becomes less UFO (since I guess that’s a real thing, now), and more as a means to divide and conquer while keeping those in power profitably in power, the Conspiracy Theory Handbook outlines how conspiracy theories spread, why they are harmful, and effective responses to those who have lost themselves down the rabbit hole.

This very short list is non-exhaustive, and this entire blog post is but a fraction of understanding digital literacy in all its facets—fact checking, for one, is its own lesson. However, we must first identify the problem so we can properly face it. This is step one. Will you join me?

For educators: What are your go-to resources when strengthening media literacy in your students?

For parents: What age-level conversations have you had with your children?

For everyone: What have you done to ensure you are consuming media healthily?

Media Literacy Activity Self-Check:
In a longer freewrite, explore your own worldview and inquiry WHY you hold that worldview in the first place. Is it your upbringing? Your geographic location? What media sites align with this worldview, and how often do you solely look to those sited for affirmation or comfort? Finally, try to actively break down your personal narrative to understand the gaps within your own vulnerabilities: what parts of your experience do you think leave you open to exploitative media? How can you protect yourself from your own bias to be exploited and manipulated and remain educated?



A Letter to You from an Unproductive Month of Quarantine

Dear Readers,

This was not the blog post I intended to write. I’ve been working on a post about the Literacy Narrative for two weeks now. It is not a difficult thing to write about – literacy is my passion, and narrative-based learning is one of my favorite things to write about and share! And yet, I’ve come up against and missed my own deadline; I’m now “behind” and off schedule for my own blog.

I’m trying hard not to beat myself up about missing one self-imposed deadline. Only, it’s not just one. I can’t write at all the past few weeks. I am struggling, hard to produce much of anything and it feels like I am wasting an opportunity, totally compounding my writer’s block. My creativity is faltering, and the words seem stuck somewhere deep within the dark caverns of existence, far, far out of reach. In other words, I simply cannot. I often take my own advice: I am active, I allow distractions, I accept that some stalling is always part of the writing process. But, while the world keeps rotating despite our social stillness, my fingers remain paused above a keyboard. And it makes me feel awful. Frankly, I hate it.

There are a lot of conflicting articles, memes and infographics circulating the internet: Use this time to be productive! Followed by, Don’t worry about being productive! No matter what side we fall on what part of the day, I think it is more valuable to disregard the platitudes altogether and discover the root of why productivity is at such a high-level of conversation in the first place. After all, we are all antsy to get back outside, back to routine, and possibly even to work. We are productive or we are rendered useless. This is a collective emotion after several weeks of world-gone-mad.

With writing and other creative-based work, productivity pressure is especially difficult because the creative process is not as simple as just clocking in, completing tasks, then clocking out and feeling “productive.” Nor is it as clean-cut as completing those deep-cleaning or organizing chores you’ve put off for months and now have successfully pivoted your value into stress-cleaning and can now enjoy a post-accomplishment beer. (Still valid though—have that reward!)

As Americans, we are, from a very young age, indoctrinated into interlacing our human value with measures of productivity. And, while if you follow me, you know I actively push against this ideal, it’s still engrained into the fabric of our identities. We have seen the facts that toxic positivity can cause mental health decline, specifically in our current state of collective trauma. The truth is, we have already been in a state of trauma before the pandemic outbreak. It is why the term “workaholic” borrows its definition using the suffix -holic: an abnormal dependency on. We are abnormally dependent on measured productivity. Addicted, psychologically and physically. Not just to keep moving, but to literally produce. Produce content, goods, services…even creativity. Without tangible means of production, we are but clumps of cells floating aimlessly in the universe.

No. We are so much more than that.

Why does it feel so terrible, then, to lack creative production, knowing this? This form of social productivity pressure can lead to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and forms of PTSD. I am not telling you this to cause more pressure to not feel bad (yes, that is a thing—I’m currently battling that very feeling). But rather to remind you that it’s not your fault that you “can’t” write. Not now, not ever. And it’s not your child’s fault, either. It’s not your student’s fault, either.

For creative writers, a lack of creative outlet is burdening—especially during times of trauma, where we are used to creative production as a means to work through issues and heal. For those who struggle to write in the first place, this feeling can be awfully self-depreciating and have long-lasting impacts on how you value yourself and your voice as a writer.

So, what do we do about it?

The truth is, I have no idea what to do about it. That’s okay. We do not need to solve our problems of productivity with a productive solution. And so, I’m not going to give you advice about how you should read a book or take a walk or watch television as a means to eventually produce more.

I’m going to tell you to stop and breathe.

Will that help you finish your term paper or get your children to finish their at-home schoolwork, or help you complete your personal words-met goal today? NOPE.


I am not advocating totally blowing academics or work off—I know, deadlines are real, and grades are due. Being a perfect model of productivity, however, will continue to feed into the generational trauma of this hustle mindset: where we praise our mental and physical deterioration for the sake of measured production for someone else. Let’s, for once, not add to that trauma and settle into whatever mindset we find ourselves in. Take a day to actively NOT measure your productivity – if you are completing work, or reading a book, or writing an essay – do it without thinking about checking off a box. And if you can’t check off that box, for whatever reason, give yourself grace and float on. Think of moments as more than tasks or checkpoints and be still with that perception.

In short: do your best today. If that’s not finishing your novel or turning in an A+ term paper, you are still a writer. You are still a learner. And you are still valuable.

With Love,

Say What You Really Mean and Avoid Value Judgements

Photo by: Patrick Tomasso

The most common feedback I give my students with their writing is: Be specific! That is always our goal, isn’t it? To compose with the 3 C’s: Clarity, Conciseness, and Coherence. So often, general statements muddy a composition, making it difficult to understand what claims are actually being made, and therefore impossible to distinguish the purpose of the writing. Part of the problem here is that when we hear the term opinion, we think evaluation: “good” or “bad.” But these are value judgements, and ironically, do nothing to add value to your writing. Omitting value judgements from your writing can improve the 3C’s and allow you to communicate more effectively.

By definition, a value judgement is: a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of something or someone, or of the usefulness of something or someone, based on a comparison or other relativity. As a generalization, a value judgment can refer to a judgment based upon a particular set of values or on a particular value system.

Some examples of value judgements include: good, bad, better, best, wrong, right, worst, best, etc. Basically, you are assigning value to something in a subjective, ambiguous manner.

Value judgements are problematic for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, think about the word judgement and its negative connotation–it is one thing to have an opinion, it’s another to use that opinion as weapon. Secondly, value is totally subjective. What value system are you making your judgements by?

Step outside of your writing for a moment and understand the context. Who are your readers? Who are you to your readers? Assigning value to a topic, subject or argument is not inclusive and can offend, alienate, or disregard entire audience groups. This is where empathy and narrative-based learning can help provide insight to others’ experiences and why it is so important to consider different perspectives. “Good” weather to a surfer in Southern California, for example, is not “good” weather to an ice-fisher in Michigan. As Morticia Addams famously said: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Value judgements then open up your writing for misinterpretation, giving your readers the opportunity to misconstrue your overall point.

Aside from lacking empathy and possible alienating audience groups, value judgements simply do not say much. They are often used as fillers that provide a shallow opinion of a general topic. Value judgements usually spark more questions! Good, how? Good, to whom? Good, why? These generic, shallow statements are not claims at all, but shadows of opinion that dim your writing and obscure what you are trying to communicate.

Ask yourself or your students: What do you mean by ‘good’? ‘Bad’ to whom? Think of precise adjectives that illustrate exactly what you are trying to say in the context of your writing. Instead of “good” think: effective, positive, encouraging, convincing, secure etc. Instead of “bad” think: harmful, destructive, dangerous, ineffective, etc. Choose a different descriptor that actually adds value to your overall point and the argument or statement you are trying to make.

This also applies to creative writing practice when it comes to using value judgements in the form of generic descriptors. When you describe something as “beautiful,” you are creating more questions as to how? To whom? Why?

When we think of writing as communication, the need for saying what you mean is easier to practice.

This practice goes beyond writing in an academic setting. As parents, we should say what we mean to our children too, and teach them to communicate effectively. Rather than tell them good job–mean what you say! When you ask your child how their day was, and they respond with good… ask them to explain how and why. Teaching literacy in this moment, including vocabulary, deep thinking, and communication skills will help them transfer the concept to their writing and academics. Encouraging literacy practice off the page will help to deepen learning capacity and improve the link between meaningful communication and writing.

Even in our personal relationships, we know how important it is to say what we mean—in our families, workplaces, friendships, partnerships—we know we should always communicate our needs and opinions precisely. It is no different with writing.

I encourage you to spend the entire day avoiding value judgements: start with removing “good” and “bad” from your vocabulary and say what you really mean.