The following editorial was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, March 3, 2019 as part of the "Raise Your Hand" column in the Insights section.
By: Keona Blanks, James Campbell High School, Class of 2019
Picture this: a smiling Catholic high school student and his classmates donning MAGA hats. They’re standing in front of a chanting Native American elder. Sounds like a moment that could be interpreted in many ways, right? Well, it wasn’t. It was hardly interpreted in one, and that interpretation called for the boys’ heads.
On January 18th, a Twitter account with more than 40,000 followers posted a minute-long video showing this interaction. The caption read, “This MAGA loser gleefully bothering a Native American protester at the Indigenous Peoples March”—without further context. The video, garnering over 14,000 retweets and 2.5 million views, sparked a political uproar.
In a perfect world, the thousands who retweeted the image would have investigated its context before doing so, because they’d have learned to. Unfortunately, ours is a world of concluding minds over inquiring minds.
However, it shouldn’t be so; information literacy is a national standard for higher learning set by the American Library Association. The information literate individual has the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the desired information. “When you visit the library in elementary school, you’re taught which sources are good and bad and why that might be so; but a lot of that gets disregarded nowadays because the information is so quick and easy to access,” said James Campbell High School history teacher John Santiago.
To avoid another MAGA Catholic student misconstruation, don’t believe everything you read. Be skeptical. Santiago said, “Say that I hear something once on a news site or I catch it on Twitter, I’ll be like ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Might not be true. Let me go verify by checking other sites.’ Reading articles or watching videos from trusted news sources like CNN is my go-to. I always check out CNN or local news sources like Hawaii News Now or KITV. I also look at FOX News or BBC News sometimes just to get a different opinion or different perspective.”
In 2016, the Stanford History Education Group released a study sampling over 7,000 middle school, high school, and college students. When asked to evaluate online information, the students based their evaluation on a site’s look and feel, things a website creator could easily manipulate. When determining the legitimacy of a source, avoid lending validity to superficial factors like web page design and instead focus on their quality, evidence, footnotes, and content. Even verified evidence still requires investigation beyond surface-level analysis. “With statistics, if you see a number but don’t understand how people got that number, those numbers could be meaningless or mean something totally different. It’s good to have cameras and evidence; but when there’s no context, deeper analysis, or explanation, it can be dangerous,” Santiago said.
Thus, the question still remains, why are we information illiterate outside of the classroom? Defined as confirmation bias, this cherry-picking of information can lead to statistical errors and sweep vital evidence under the rug. We already know that social media can result in echo chambers supporting one’s point of view. As companies and website continue to work towards rectifying the issue, conclusions must be made based on the evidence at hand, rather than finding evidence that supports a preconceived conclusion.
In 1998, when journalist Stephen Glass was exposed for his unverifiable story “Hack Heaven” in addition to partial or full fabrication for 27 of his 41 stories, the public came to know full well that trusting a single source is risky. News can easily be fabricated. Have we since forgotten? In the end, it is the role of the consumer to digest information comprehensively and carefully.