As has been already widely reported, U.S. Attorney General Robert Barr released a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report to the public on Thursday. The 448-page Mueller report PDF is rich in detail and quotes and reads like a spy novel at times—not that most people will actually download it. What’s more likely is that they’ll skim secondary sources, news stories about the two-year investigation’s findings, instead. And even more likely still, most will probably just glean information about the report from headlines sprinkled across social media, as they scroll through Twitter and Facebook, to find out what’s new with their friends.
More than two-thirds of Americans get news from social media, according to a Pew survey last year. And research released just last month revealed that 37% of Americans actually prefer to get local news online—just a shade below the 41% who like to get it from television. But here’s the rub: More than half of the respondents who get their news through social said they think the reporting is “largely inaccurate,” Pew reports.
So, if people think social media’s news is “fake,” why are they continuing to get it there? The most popular reason is “convenience,” say 21% of the survey’s respondents. But News Literacy Project’s founder and CEO Alan Miller has a better theory: Readers don’t know better, and technology has overwhelmed them.
Founded in 2008 with a grant from the Knight Foundation, NLP wants to help educators teach news literacy. In forming the nonpartisan, national non-profit organization the year after the iPhone was introduced, Miller was prophetic. “The advent of smartphones and mobile… opened the floodgates to far more information being available through multiple platforms and devices—constantly—than we’ve ever seen in human history,” Miller says.
But the 2016 U.S. presidential election was “the real watershed moment” for NLP, he says. Revealing just how much mis- and disinformation exists on social media, the election and its ensuing controversies have brought the issue of news literacy to the forefront of society, and the floor of Congress. “Suddenly there was a groundswell of increased interest among educators, the media, and funders about our work and our mission,” Miller says.
In fact, NLP has received support from a who’s who of media organizations and figures. And last month it announced a partnership with Apple—whose Apple News product has it focusing on quality news—as well as an investment from Flipboard, the iPhone-maker’s main competitor.
But since 2016, NLP has been a hot topic in schools, with more than 17,000 educators teaching the browser-based curriculum to at least 122,000 students in every U.S. state and across more than 100 other countries.
Using a virtual classroom program called Checkology, NLP provides an interactive curriculum that teaches students the difference between fact and fake news. The program even throws them into a breaking story as a rookie reporter, where they have to interview eye witnesses, official, and expert sources, as well as get documents to put together a story that meets the standards of quality journalism “so they will look for them, and they will demand them in what they are encountering,” Miller says.
In a 2017-2018 survey, 93% of students said they became more confident in detecting misinformation online after completing the NLP’s course. That high a success rate is essential, considering what today’s young readers are up against. According to Miller, before embarking on Checkology, many students would weigh everything they saw online equally. “In many cases, they believe if they are getting it on social media or on their smartphone, that means it’s true,” he says. “They may be getting it via Snapchat, Facebook, or Twitter—and they’re sharing it.”
The impact of that kind of virality cannot be overstated, and we—editors and reporters—are fully aware of its impact. After establishing my career in technology journalism, I worked in breaking news for TIME and Fortune over the last two years, covering a wide swath of current affairs. While it can feel overwhelming when your area of expertise must encompass the entire spectrum of news, all it takes is one eye-popping headline to make for a good day, week, or even month, in terms of page views.
Such was the case when I heard about the U.S. House passing a tax cut bill as all eyes were fixated on the Senate’s Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings last fall. I assigned a story a reporter to write a brief, yet balanced, piece about the legislation. Shorter than most stories we’ve published, it wasn’t particularly well optimized for Google’s search engine (which typically delivers a high volume of Internet traffic to news websites), but the article quickly got readers’ attention on Facebook.
Oh boy, did it ever.
According to Pew, 67% of Facebook users get news on the social network, as do 43% of U.S. adults, a figure that pencils out to roughly 105 million people. So when Bernie Sanders, who has 7.5 million followers on Facebook, posts a story there—as he did with the tax cut piece—it will get a fair amount of eyes on it. Likewise, the Occupy Democrats account shared it with its 7.7 million followers. Later, Sanders also shared it with his 9.2 million followers on Twitter, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (then just a mere phenom, and not yet a congresswoman) also linked to the article.
As a result, the 196-word story—conceived of while I was reading my morning news over coffee, and written in less than an hour—was one of the most popular articles on Fortune’s web site last year. But why? Not because it was particularly high quality. It was simply because people saw it and shared it, just like many of the Mueller report headlines you’ve seen, but whose articles you probably didn’t read.
Sadly the tax story, because of its virality, got more attention than many other pieces Fortune published last year that were much more deserving of readers’ time, like Geoff Colvin’s prophetic economic analysis, “The End is Near For the Economic Boom,” and the gut-wrenching exposé of child cobalt-mining by Vivienne Walt and Sebastian Meyer, “Blood, Sweat, and Batteries.”
Truth be told, the tax cut story was just jetsam thrown into the Internet on a stormy news day. But at least it was factual; so much of social media’s flotsam is not. “Students are flooded by a tsunami of sources of news and information in a great variety,” Miller says. “Credible information is competing for their attention with far more information that’s intended to persuade, sell, mislead, or misinform. That’s the great challenge.”
And in the wake of the Mueller report’s release—and all the spin around it—that’s the great challenge for us all. Unfortunately, NLP doesn’t offer resources for adults looking to improve their news literacy; its mission is to make the topic a fixture of the American middle and high school experience. But its website does offer a “Get Smart” section with resources, like its “News Lit Quiz,” aimed at readers of all ages. NLP also has a free, weekly newsletter called The Sift, which is written for news literacy teachers, but anyone can subscribe.
But in light of the deluge of news produced by the Mueller report, the challenge of the day is putting down your smartphone and buying a magazine, a newspaper, or an online subscription instead. Read one media source from front-to-back, section-to-section. Shake off the addictive laziness of social media news feeds and liberate yourself from the tyranny of smartphones’ endless scrolling. Instead, feast on all the news that editors deemed fit to print.
The Mueller report is finally here, but don’t just take Twitter’s word for it. Go read it for yourself.