First-year student Thea Barrett got her start with MediaWise, a part of the Poynter Institute, as part of their Teen Fact-Checking Network. She got involved because she believes it’s critical that everyone has access to factual—and understandable—information.
“I believe that's crucial and essential to our democracy,” said Barrett, who is majoring in political science and writing in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
Following her stint at the Teen Fact-Checking Network, Barrett worked as an intern and now serves as a campus correspondent. On campuses across the country (and now via Zoom), Barrett gives trainings about misinformation to first-time voters. Here at Pitt, she also presented in a class taught by Peter Trachtenberg, associate professor in the Department of English’s Writing Program.
“With the advent of the internet and the corresponding decline of newspaper and magazine journalism, there’s been an explosion of spurious and fallacious news—not just news, but the kinds of basic information that are essential to a functioning society,” Trachtenberg said.
She also works to counter misinformation about COVID-19, which she didn’t see as much when she first started, but which she called more dangerous and divisive than some of the posts she was fact-checking even just a year ago.
“In some cases, such as COVID-19 and hydroxychloroquine or whether you should wear a mask, having reliable information becomes truly life or death,” she said.
She does see commonalities between COVID-19 misinformation and other stories she has checked, including that it taps into people’s anxieties about the outside world and is designed to spark emotion. Misinformation and disinformation are designed, she said, to trick the brain into autopilot by tapping into strong emotions, like anger or happiness
Should readers find themselves in that emotional space as they’re clicking that “share” button, Barrett recommends pausing, taking a beat and doing a quick search to confirm the information.
Barrett has worked to use her Instagram Stories feed to fact-check claims she has seen on her own timeline. “We all have a personal platform, and it’s our responsibility to double check and confirm everything we see before we share it,” she said, though she also believes tech companies share responsibility to ensure that dangerous conspiracy theories or misinformation aren’t being spread.
Trachtenberg also noted that it’s often not enough to simply rebut misinformation, which he likened to playing whack-a-mole. “It’s much more useful to inoculate people against misinformation by teaching critical thinking and basic research skills,” he said, adding that in his ideal university, all first-year students would be required to take a semester-long course in media literacy.
“What we read and share shapes our view of the world, and we have a duty to ourselves, each other and the country to be vigilant about our responsibilities,” Barrett said.