Media literacy, i.e., why you can be quiet sometimes

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It’s really, really easy to get news these days. There’s a billion different independent news sites, Instagram posts, Twitter journalists and open source intelligence (OSINT) organizations telling you everything you want to know about every single conflict and incident and interaction you could imagine. You can get real-time updates on how many freckles are on Cillian Murphy’s perfect face, and the fastest possible response time on whether Iran has decided to nuke the U.S. yet (spoiler, they really, really want to). And with all this information, misinformation, half-truths, and straight-up lies, people forgot the one fundamental rule of dealing with massive information dumps:

Sometimes — just maybe — you should shut up.

Seriously. Stop your habit of looking at something for ten seconds, concluding that it’s enough to produce an informed decision, and running with it. Stop looking at tweets from “Cockslayer12345XXX” as if they have nuanced takes on the state of politics or the economy.

You are one person. Most of us aren’t experts in anything, let alone the intricacies of topics that often take Ph.D.s to even understand at a high level. And it’s a problem.

This article was really inspired by the Israel-Hamas war, but it’s been brewing since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It became evident in the early days of both conflicts that there was so much happening that people didn’t really know what was and wasn’t true. Someone would declare something, and then three hours later people would recognize that it hadn’t happened, or that the person who had apparently declared it was off their rocker.

And that’s not to claim conspiracy. It was more just the reality that conflict puts people into danger, and it makes it a lot harder to get a straight story. The knowledge of one small subgroup is not going to be broadly applicable to the conflict as a whole, and that’s something that can be incredibly important to recognize.

What's terrifying is when people start echoing or pushing these snippets as if they’re gospel. It’s easy to get swept up in a hail of “reported” and “awaiting confirmation” and imagine what things could be like if those things were true.

That drives people to start talking about it, and people who don’t really pay attention are going to see people talk about and start accepting information as broadly true. Because if “everyone” is talking about it, it must be common knowledge. That’s sort of how a rumor spreads, and that's also how false reporting spreads.

It means people think they know what’s happening. They see a piece of media and think have an intuitive grasp of the biases, claims, and underlying information associated with it. Because of course, it would be really hard to analyze or do media critique on the things we read.

It’s easy to draw conclusions from things that just happened based on a tweet or a headline. It’s significantly harder to understand that sometimes, it’s alright to not know what happened, or just not draw conclusions the second it occurred.

Media literacy is something that is really important, now more than ever. Headlines often don’t contain the entire story — they’re missing crucial information or important clarifications. Breaking news isn’t ever going to be vetted in a meaningful way when the situation is unfolding, and in this day and age where information is supposed to come out as soon as possible, it’s important to understand that immediate reporting isn’t always going to give people the best possible picture of what happens.

So what can we do, as people, to be a literate audience for the media?

Well first, it’s all right to not have a public-facing opinion on things when a situation is developing. A situation can change radically as more information flows in, and as further reporting is done. During that time, it’s always best to reserve judgment until reputable third parties make claims. On top of that, it’s necessary, especially with how absolutely saturated we are with the media, to take a second and focus more on multiple sources and their claims and claimants, as opposed to just reading headlines or posts. A Reuters headline might be full of buzzwords, but a couple seconds of reading can be insanely enlightening. A few quick Google searches are going to make a world of difference in understanding the quoted sources and their biases, and hell, that’s going to be incredibly informative. If you want to know what’s actually going on, all it takes is just a little more interacting with the sources out there. The Associated Press, the New York Times, Washington Post, all of these outlets have capable, well-trained journalists across the world, and they’re doing their best — but in times of crisis, it pays to just take a breath. Take a moment, synthesize what you can and feel confident that sometimes you won’t know what really happened until the dust has settled.

It’s not fun seeing something and spending ten minutes trying to figure out if there’s some corroborating reporting. It’s not fun waiting and seeing what develops as things progress. It sucks, but it’s important if you want to have well-formed opinions on things. It’s hard to spend that time, get invested, and do the deep dives. We’re faced with biased sources, strange reporting, and open-ended or unfolding situations. I find incredibly important give those events the care and attention they deserve.