The growing problem of misinformation is compounded by the fact many Australian adults lack confidence in their ability to identify false or misleading information. (AAP Image/Sam Mooy)
The growing problem of misinformation is compounded by the fact many Australian adults lack confidence in their ability to identify false or misleading information. (AAP Images/Sam Mooy)

What is misinformation and how can media literacy combat it?

October 21, 2021

Misinformation refers to a range of different types of false, inaccurate, or misleading information. It can be spread intentionally by people who want to mislead us or cause harm, or unintentionally by people who believe it is true.

A recent survey of 3,510 Australians shows more than four in five adults use social media daily and three in four believe the online spread of misinformation is an issue that needs to be addressed. But fewer than four in ten adults in Australia say they are confident about their ability to check if information they find online is true. 

And it’s not only adults who struggle with this. Just one-third of Australian children aged 8-16 are confident they can identify false or misleading information online. 

Organisations and governments around the world are identifying and testing approaches to reduce misinformation, with varying degrees of success. These efforts include changes by companies to identify, label or remove misinformation from social media platforms; the introduction of new laws and government regulations to penalise misinformation publishers and super-spreaders; and support for professional fact-checking services. 

Media literacy is also often proposed as one measure to combat the spread of misinformation. This is something we can all use in our daily lives to help us to work out if a claim is true or a source is trustworthy. Media literacy can also be developed in collaboration with others – in schools, community centres, libraries and in the family home. 

What is media literacy?

The Australian Media Literacy Alliance (AMLA) define media literacy as “the ability to critically engage with media in all aspects of life”. AMLA says media literacy is essential for full participation in society and requires lifelong learning.

Media literacy encourages people to ask critical questions about media. These critical questions aim to encourage people to reflect on both the content and their own media use. 

Media literacy also aims to support people to analyse how people, places and ideas are represented.

Critical questions can be asked about any type of media – an advertisement, a news story, a film or television program, an online video, video game or a social media post. These questions can also be asked if you are using, sharing, or creating media.  When these critical questions are applied to different kinds of media they will lead to very different answers.

What’s most important is taking time to ask and answer these questions with an open mind. This will lead to critical inquiry, and this provides the foundations for critical media engagement.

Professional fact-checkers use their own set of critical questions to inform the process of determining if claims are factual and trustworthy. AAP FactCheck always considers: Who made this claim? What is the evidence to support the claim? What do trusted sources say about this claim? 

These questions will nearly always lead to others, for example, about what technologies may have been used to create or manipulate a claim.

When we ask critical questions about media we also need to be mindful of how our own brain works to fully understand why we are all vulnerable to misinformation in the first place. We need to ask ourselves: What are my own biases and beliefs and am I only looking for information to confirm these? Am I looking for the simplest explanation of this issue rather than the most credible one? Am I drawn to language and images that grab my attention and make me emotional, or I am looking for information that is factual and not seeking to provoke an emotional response from me?

Pausing to ask questions like these may seem too basic to help address the avalanche of online misinformation. But critical thinking about media has consistently shown positive effects on people’s ability to identify and respond to misinformation. 

Professional fact-checking services, like AAP FactCheck, have developed a process for fact-checks that is built around critical questions. Fortunately, asking questions is something we can all do every time we encounter information – doing so is one way we can all combat the spread of misinformation. 

You can employ critical thinking to Check The Facts. To determine if information is factual, start with the basics:

  • Who made the claim?
  • What is the evidence?
  • What do trusted sources say?

It is also important to consider:

  • How the information aims to represent a version of reality (is it accurate, fair or misleading?)
  • Is the information intended to persuade a specific audience and why?
  • What kinds of languages are used to present the information: is there evidence of bias, sensationalist language, or techniques of persuasion?
  • Can we verify the legitimacy of institutions that made the information, and why they made it?
  • How might this information be used to create/challenge/fracture relationships between different people and/or institutions?

Source: AMLA Framework


Tanya Notley is Associate Professor of Digital Media at Western Sydney University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Media Literacy Alliance.

T.J. Thomson is a senior lecturer in visual communication and media at the Queensland University of Technology and a chief investigator at its Digital Media Research Centre.

Professor Michael Dezuanni, from Queensland University of Technology, contributed to the Australian Media Literacy Alliance content, cited in this article.

This article was supported by Facebook.