In the early 1900s, the gas-powered automobile was introduced as a game-changing, disruptive technology, and they were adopted across major cities as quickly as Henry Ford could ship them from his assembly lines. The first driver’s-education classes didn’t arrive until over 30 years later. That’s not to mention driver’s licenses, seatbelts, and restrictions on drunk driving.
In the early 2000s we received social media with all of its benefits, beauty, and destructive possibilities. None of us were prepared for the extremely-online generation that would ensue, and the challenges, stumbles, opportunities, and disasters that would inevitably follow. Today, no government in the world (as far as we know) has introduced a licensing system to ensure that people are adequately educated before operating their own Instagram accounts.
The analogy may wear thin at the edges, but the truth is that social media has had a massive impact on our lives, both positive and negative, and we have been left entirely to our own devices to figure out how to navigate its nuances, pitfalls, and newfound opportunities.
All of that was difficult enough back in the days when the most challenging things we could encounter were fake websites and doctored headlines, but today we have two of the most powerful technologies in the history of content working together to make it nearly impossible to discern between what’s genuine and what’s been created to mislead us: Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence.
The super-powered For You pages of platforms like TikTok latch onto content that would have never been possible before 2023 and thrust it in front of our faces — often from a wide variety of sources — so forcefully that we can’t help but sit up and take notice. At the same time, generative AI tools like Midjourney can instantly create photo-realistic images that can be nearly impossible to identify as fake.
Let’s look at a somewhat innocuous example of these two forces coming together:
The Pope’s new puffy jacket
For several days, the Internet was convinced that the Pope had adopted a newfound level of drip with a white coat that looked like it could have been custom made by the designers at Canada Goose. For many people, the quality of the photos served as incontrovertible evidence of the jacket’s existence, so the memes almost wrote themselves.
“I saw Rihanna’s background dancers wearing white puffy jackets, so I wore a white puffy jacket” – the Pope pic.twitter.com/MmMREF0hVF
— Taylor Jackson (@taylajackson12) March 26, 2023
While papal-fashion scandals may trigger concern, some other lesser-known, but potentially more impactful, fakes have started to emerge, including images that appeared to show former US President Donald Trump struggling as NYPD arrested him, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin apparently kneeling in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When such impressive technologies are conspiring to trick us into thinking that what we’re seeing is real, how can we possibly defend our sense of reality and truth?
Gen Z has an answer: Media literacy and fact-checking tools.
One recent report on media literacy efforts in western democracies placed Canada 7th, while the U.S. came in at #18. The project’s goal is to build our ability to consume content critically in order to develop an immunity to the threat of misinformation. They are taking the matter of defending truth into their own hands, and we can all benefit.
First, there have been a series of sites, accounts, and other resources launched that fact-check claims, content, and news stories. The goal is to provide a place for all of us to go when something in our feeds seems just a little bit too good (or bad) to be true. A few examples include:
- TikTok account and website @MediaWise
- Another TikTok account, aptly named the @NewsLitProject
- poynter.org, which is a website with a massive amount of tools and resources, run by the students at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies
Next, there are training tools that don’t just check facts for you, but teach you techniques to verify your own content:
- Going Upstream and Lateral Reading — a free, open sourced guide that’s become required reading for University students
- Getting it Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age — by Poynter
- Identifying and tackling manipulated media — by Reuters (in partnership with Facebook, so consider the source)
The reality is that we’ve entered into an era where the naked eye will never again be able to be trusted to discern between what’s fact and what’s fake. It’s on us all to build up our critical thinking skills, and develop some basic techniques that will work to defend us individually, and collectively dampen the potential negative impacts of online misinformation.
Much like the era of the automobile, there is no turning back once these technologies have been deployed into our world, so it’s on us to develop the next generation of safety measures to minimize the number of people harmed by its unintended consequences.