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Holding Phones

Media Literacy Can Influence How We Behave and Communicate In a Time Where Misinformation Is Thriving


Author: Elizabeth Korda
Writing for a Business Career: Spring 2020

I am sure you have heard of the phrase “troll”. Trolls are defined as “humans who hold accounts on social media platforms” who disrupt the online conversation and insert misinformation. Of course, not everyone holds the intent to troll, but most of us are subconsciously “generating” misinformation and misdirecting masses of people. According to a new study published in the Human Communication Research journal, Jason C Coronel, from Ohio State University, “examined the role of schemas in the creation of numerical misinformation, and how misinformation can spread via person-to-person communication.” This test concluded that “humans appear to self-generate misinformation even when they’ve been given the facts.” For the sake of understanding the severity of our reality and the point of this article, the official definition of misinformation consists of “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.”

Subsequently, communication professionals have a role to play in addressing this problem. We must take the lead in media literacy efforts which can aid in the prevention of misinformation and equip our digitized society with the strategies necessary to combat misleading sources. Media literacy, as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”  

Utilitarianism: Ethical Principle Behind Taking the Lead

As communication professionals and members of a growing and advancing society, it is our duty, as individuals, to practice ethics for everyone’s good. Under the umbrella of ethics, this principle would fall under the normative consequentialist practice of utilitarianism. According to the fathers of this principle, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the core of utilitarianism concerns “whether actions are morally right or wrong [and this] depends on their effects.” Likewise, if we start to implement critical thinking skills in what we communicate, we will be helping our society: “Without this fundamental ability [media literacy], an individual cannot have full dignity as a human person or exercise citizenship in a democratic society where to be a citizen is to both understand and contribute to the debates of the time.” After we have grasped the skills for “critical autonomy,” we can represent and promote media literacy awareness and education among our society.

Communication Professional’s Role in Public Relations and Advertising 

With the utilitarian mindset in place, the next step for communication professionals is to ensure that their behavior and actions cover their professional lives as well. In order to guide this endeavor, there are certain principles and rules in place regarding public relations and advertising practices. For example, the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) code of ethics includes a core principle that concerns media literacy and ethical behaviors such as the Enhancement of the Profession: “Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.” Public relations specialists uphold this principle, not only for the sake of  image and company reputation, but also for the trust of the general public. 

Likewise, the American Advertising Federation (AAF) has a similar code in place. Included in the Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics, all communication professionals are to “share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public … [and to] exercise the highest personal ethics in the creation and dissemination of commercial information to consumers.” Once again, the actions of a utilitarian mindset benefits both the individual, the professional field, and general society.

Societal Current Issues and Potential Solutions

Recently, there have been numerous misinformation instances in the news and on certain social media sites regarding the coronavirus outbreak and climate change. In January 2020, a Chinese airport sent a notification to a Canadian airport about a traveler arriving in Toronto from China: Twitter exploded with panic-related tweets such as “he needs to be quarantined” and “keep him away from us.” Not only did that method of social communication expose and violate that man’s privacy, but it gave the entire world an opportunity to assume and spread falsely rooted information. Even though we have no knowledge of how the virus is transmitted (airborne, physical, or both), people came up with “solutions” for how this problem should be dealt with. Others even went so far as to claim that the 5G fast internet technology (from the Chinese) might contain and spread the virus. 

Comparatively, a similar situation has been under inspection for a couple months. Two weeks ago, another misinformation occurence became viral: YouTube had featured ads and videos consisting of false climate information; many people were incensed by this, especially YouTube influencers. It came as a shock to many that YouTube did not filter this misinformation. However, this is what results when personal ethics and professional codes are not at the core of an organization’s foundation and vision. 


Potential Solutions

Within the previous issue’s article, there had been some proposed solutions: “demonetization of misinformation … work with independent fact-checkers … “ While YouTube needs to instill certain policies and disclaimers, there are other media literacy strategies we can utilize. The strategic solution, for the masses, starts with media literacy education and awareness efforts implemented by communication professionals. In an effort to make a point about misinformation, The Washington Post highlighted the 2018 Word of the Year from In the article, the newspaper discussed current issues and several media literacy strategies to combat misinformation. They encouraged the public to “fact-check stories we encounter on social media … commit to reading entire articles, and not just headlines, before sharing them … point others to fact-checking resources when we see misinformation spreading…” Furthermore, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and NAMLE partnered together to establish Media Literacy Week, which has taken place and will continue, perennially, from October 21 through October 25. The endeavor focuses on grades PreK-12 and is geared at the “advance [of] media literacy professional development.” While media literacy is slow in most curriculums in our country’s schools,  this broadcast will help introduce the idea and significance of it. 

While most agree that some changes need to be established, some still disagree. According to the authors of the Nautilus, a book about misinformation in a scientific age, the amount of indifference scientific policymakers reflected was shocking: “Look, we agree that a certain kind of critical reasoning is essential...” however, they argued that it’s not their job to enforce media literacy engagement, especially on subjects people have not questioned. To this, I’d argue, it is and isn’t their place to engage us in media literacy. They are responsible for the accuracy of all the facts we are given. However, media literacy engagement begins individually, and then societally.

On the contrary to being indifferent, others adamantly disagree with the utilitarian mentality, saying it has limiting effects in our mediatized world; also, the idea of objectivity and impartiality as part of utilitarianism is unrealistic. In any case, how is a communication professional supposed to act ethically without an objectively grounded set of truths and codes? 

On a broader note, we have those who believe technology holds no responsibility for misinformation, rather we must educate people to think for themselves. While I agree with educating people on media literacy, I also think social media sites and online sources should be cleaned up. This will assist in the general effort for media literacy effectiveness.

In sum, I believe misinformation can be prevented if communication professionals help educate the public on media literacy strategies. There is no better method of dealing with unintentional and intentional falsehoods than by addressing them transparently and directly. Offering the publics all the facts about misinformation, today, will place them in the right mindset of doing what is right for their benefit and for the benefit of the greater good. 

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