Published January 11, 2021
The misinformation that led to the siege of the U.S. Capitol by rioters on Wednesday has made it clear that freedom of speech currently outweighs societal good in the U.S., says UB information literacy expert Heidi Julien.
Election misinformation — including claims that the general election was stolen — has proven to be a threat on democracy, says Julien, professor of information science in the Graduate School of Education. She adds that political leaders and executives of social media companies bear responsibility for the rampant spread of falsehoods.
“Half-baked attempts by Facebook and Twitter to label misinformation or ban people who disseminate misinformation is too little too late,” says Julien. “It’s unethical for their CEOs to throw up their hands and say all they do is provide a platform and it’s not their job to police information. They have a responsibility to make sure their platforms aren’t used to spread misinformation or terrorize people.”
Lawmakers must use legislative means to clamp down on social media companies and media organizations that spread dangerous lies, as well as push back against misinformation through public statements, she says.
“Misinformation is a widespread problem that will be difficult to tackle on the societal level with the U.S.’ emphasis on free speech,” she says. “There must be a balance between first amendment rights and the greater good.”
Educating the next generation to spot misinformation is one way to help solve the problem, says Julien.
Beginning in the first grade, information literacy should be incorporated across curriculums, with students learning how to identify bias and credible sources, as well as build trust in science and academic experts, she says. Students should also be tested on these skills, she says, noting schools tend to focus classroom time on information that appears on standardized tests.
“These are lifelong skills. It’s easy to forget facts taught in school, but media and information literacy skills are what allow you to be a functioning member of an open democracy,” says Julien, pointing out that many students are not taught these skills until they reach college.
However, before school curriculums can be changed, teachers must first be educated on information literacy. Surprisingly, Julien says, many teachers don’t learn information literacy in their training.
Julien credits Finland and Sweden as being prime examples of nations that successfully incorporated information literacy into school core curriculums.