Editorial: Media literacy bill a welcome tool in the fight against fake news

You're scrolling through Facebook when a link, a meme, a post stops you in your tracks.

Maybe you're angered by something you read. Maybe you're in agreement. Maybe you think about sharing it. But is something about that seemingly harmless post off? Misleading? Or even flagrantly false?

As readers, we hope we have the knowledge and intuition to spot fake news - and the integrity not to knowingly share it. Sometimes, though, a story or a photo seems real enough to pass for news. And if adults can fall for fake news, imagine how evasive truth can be to kids who have grown up getting most of their news from social media.

That's why legislation sponsored by a number of suburban state reps is so vitally important.

House Bill 234, currently awaiting a vote in the House, would require all public schools to teach media literacy as part of their high school curricula. The goal is for teens to learn the skills to evaluate the trustworthiness of media organizations and the objectives of the stories they read.

"Social media and the digitization of the news industry has made it easier for everyday residents to stay up-to-date on the latest headlines, but at the same time, it has also made it easier for illegitimate organizations to quickly spread misinformation," Rep. Joyce Mason, one of the sponsors and a Gurnee Democrat, said in a news release.

"Unfortunately, we've seen the ways these disingenuous articles can cause serious, real-world harm by promoting dangerous conspiracies about issues like the legitimacy of our elections and the safety of our vaccines. We need to take action to prevent these sort of lies from continuing to spread unchecked."

Misinformation is a calculated attempt to distort and to manipulate. Thus, dangerous falsehoods are meant to shape how we feel, how we vote and how we react.

False claims of a stolen election fueled the flames of anger and distrust that led to the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. "This," our editorial board wrote the next day, "is where cynicism and unsupported conspiracy theories lead."

Make no mistake: They lead to the undermining of democracy. And they can lead to bloodshed.

That's why it is critical that we teach children to sift through news reports, to look beyond appearances and to ask tough questions. Where did this story come from? Is the source reputable? Can I check the information with credible sources? Does the story raise red flags in the way it makes me feel? Is the material current? Does it leave out critical details?

We all have a responsibility to promote media literacy, and House Bill 234 would help pass needed skills on to the next generation. We urge the House and Senate to pass it, to take this important step to safeguard truth.

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