How to improve your media literacy skills

Sophisticated algorithms have changed the landscape of the internet, making media literacy a skill that needs to be constantly sharpened.

UNC professor Francesca Tripodi
Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science, poses for a portrait in front of Manning Hall on May 25, 2021. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Savvy internet users know how to find and evaluate sources in order not to spread misinformation. But as algorithms become more sophisticated — and as the companies that use them keep their functionality increasingly veiled — it’s critical to treat media literacy as a skill that needs to be constantly sharpened.

“We’re in an information environment where we’re constantly searching as part of our daily experiences,” says UNC School of Information and Library Science assistant professor Francesca Tripodi, who studies the social dimensions of search.

That environment, and its endless barrage of information, means that even users with the best of intentions may run into problems with the searches they conduct and the information that gets returned.

Tripodi, who is also a senior faculty researcher at Carolina’s Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, offered a few tips about search engines, algorithms and keywords to strengthen media literacy skills at a time when that knowledge can make the difference between exposing bias and reinforcing it.

Know what you’re up against

Every platform wants you to spend as much time as possible on it. With that goal in mind, Tripodi explains, “Algorithms are designed to feed you information that they’ll think you’ll like the most.”

That’s not such a bad thing if you’re looking up funny cat videos on YouTube, but it gets trickier when you’re researching a pressing issue.

“Proprietors of problematic content are really good at tagging their content to exploit the algorithmic loophole,” says Tripodi. “They understand how SEO works. This isn’t a new or sophisticated strategy. It’s something that marketers have been doing for decades. I don’t think we understand that the same tactics are being used in the same way for information.”

Knowing how the game is played can prepare you to take proper steps on your own.

Think carefully about how you frame a search

How we phrase a search makes all the difference. “We need to think about the role language plays in the kinds of information that’s going to be returned to us,” says Tripodi.

She uses Colin Kaepernick as an example. When the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback took a knee during the national anthem, then-President Trump tweeted its negative impact on the NFL’s ratings. “If you agreed with him and you Googled ‘NFL ratings down,’ you got information that agreed with that perspective,” says Tripodi. “If you were trying to challenge that perspective, and you Googled ‘NFL ratings up,’ you received information that confirmed that perspective.”

Tripodi says it’s essential to be critical not just of the information that a search returns but also the kinds of phrases we use to search in the first place. “That puts us in these filter bubbles without even knowing it,” she says.

Think critically about keywords

“Our keywords matter,” says Tripodi. “The kinds of keywords that we query is a part of media literacy that we’re not paying enough attention to.”

The keywords we employ to conduct a search might seem objective, but language isn’t a neutral thing.

“An example I use frequently to think about how ideological dialects drive searches is when we think of immigration,” says Tripodi. “If the keywords I use are ‘undocumented workers’ or ‘illegal aliens,’ that will dramatically shift the type of information that’s returned. That’s a very different frame than thinking about the human element of immigration and how to protect workers’ rights. People often think the problem is in the browser, but seeking information from Duck Duck Go, Bing, or Google will all reflect the inherent biases in our starting points.”

Unfortunately, studying keywords is a newer part of media literacy, so there aren’t many resources available to train users how to think more critically — and carefully — about their keywords, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get started anyway.

“Something that’s useful is to challenge people to consider keywords outside of the way they might inherently think,” she says.

Certain words might seem to get you good information, but it’s important to try searching a few different ways. “Just because all of the returns support your existing position doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s all the information out there.”

Never stop learning

Although there are not many resources available about keywords, there are many other sites and projects that can help. Tripodi recommends Infodemic.blog, which provides educational resources to refine our media literacy skills at a time when false or misinformation may be flying.

“In the end, it’s important to realize that media literacy is contextual, complicated and ongoing,” says Tripodi. “Learning how to evaluate the sources search engines return to us is an essential first step, but we must also remember that search engines are not designed to guide us through existential crises or challenge our existing beliefs. Ultimately, our results tie back to what we query so we need to be mindful of the role we play in the information seeking process.”