Media Literacy Comes into Focus as 2024 Election Cycle Gets Underway, CSUN Prof Says

Internet coding saying misnformation

Photo by Alicja Nowakowska, iStock.

During the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, social media platforms became Petri dishes of misinformation — casting doubts on election results, spreading lies about candidates and creating baseless conspiracy theories.

As the 2024 election cycle gets underway, these issues remain and are heightened by growing concerns surrounding the potential impact of a wave of AI-generated content.

Photo provided by Bobbie Eisenstock

Photo provided by Bobbie Eisenstock

These are problems that have the potential to “disrupt the democratic process and cause harm such as suppressing the vote in certain districts and swing states,” said California State University, Northridge journalism professor Bobbie Eisenstock, who has been a media literacy educator and consultant for more than three decades.

“The lesson from the recent elections is to expect more mis- and disinformation in 2024 including more targeted attacks using more sophisticated AI-enabled technology that can quickly generate fraudulent information and realistic-looking fake social media accounts,” said Eisenstock, who teaches in CSUN’s Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication. “It is challenging to combat disinformation when tens of millions of people are sharing it.”

Media literacy frames how Eisenstock teaches courses at CSUN and facilitates workshops for middle and high school students and teachers, parents, health practitioners, media professionals, and youth advocates.

As Eisenstock noticed her Gen-Z students were getting their news on social media, a place she said ”is difficult to discern facts from falsehoods and opinions,” news literacy became a key priority in her teaching. She developed a course for the CSUN journalism department and recently published a book based on the course, titled “News Literacy Now: How to ‘Read’ the News.”

“There is a distinction between misinformation and disinformation. We tend to use the word misinformation when we mean disinformation. The key difference is intent,” Eisenstock said. “Misinformation is not intentionally false. If a news story contains an error, it was a mistake and the news outlet will correct it. On the other hand, disinformation is intentionally misleading or false information created to cause harm.”

“Media literacy has been around for decades, but only since the ‘fake news’ crisis of the recent elections has the term become more mainstream,” she continued. “We may be more aware of media literacy now, but that doesn’t mean we are more media literate. If we made media literacy education a priority, that would make a difference.”

Eisenstock emphasizes that as the 2024 election approaches, we should expect an onslaught of disinformation targeting susceptible groups of people through tailored campaigns.

“When you add in AI tools like ChatGPT to the mix, there are serious issues because of the potential to spread misinformation and disinformation faster and farther than ever before,” Eisenstock said.

“The rise of AI-generated content makes fact-checking even more necessary. AI content may be inaccurate, biased, plagiarized, entirely fabricated, even created to intentionally spread disinformation,” she continued. “There are ways to spot AI content, but as the technology evolves, it is getting harder to detect.”

A key strategy to combat mis- and disinformation is to “fact-check what you’re reading while you’re reading it,” Eisenstock said. “This is called lateral reading and it is a method that fact-checkers use to identify the source, verify the facts, and make sure the facts are not taken out of context.”

Another strategy is reverse image search to identify the origin and authenticity of an image.

News literacy skills will go a long way in helping the public understand that what they see and read online may not always be the truth, she said.

“Technology is always evolving but media literacy is a constant,” Eisenstock said. “Media literacy is an essential life skill. If we are media literate, then regardless of the technology, we know how to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”

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