California is taking steps to combat disinformation. But everyone can do more

As an Arab Muslim woman who has taught in California for the past decade, I have heard more hate and disinformation about my culture and beliefs than I care to remember.

Social media is where most disinformation begins. It spreads across California every day, ranging from conspiracy theories about climate change to rumors designed to undermine trust in public health protections, to the hate speech that fueled the attack on the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Paul Pelosi, fueled.

Thankfully, California is increasingly fighting back. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 587 this year, requiring social media companies to publicly declare their efforts to prevent hate speech, disinformation and extremism. Platforms are required to submit detailed reports to the California Attorney General’s office twice a year on how they monitor themselves.

State Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, a Democrat from Burbank, said the bill’s goal is to encourage social media companies to think about the role they play in public discourse and the damage they cause.

Patrolling the digital discourse is just part of it. Californian educators are also trying to encourage media literacy among younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z—digital natives who know only the information age.

Since 2018, the California Department of Education has been providing online educational materials to help young people develop a wide range of skills for the digital age. These include online privacy, preventing cyberbullying and identifying misinformation, including fake news detection.

Uncovering disinformation is particularly important for young people. More than 80% of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between online advertising and news articles, a Stanford University study found, citing the need to strengthen media literacy programs.

In my courses, I use the education department’s tools to help students develop tolerance, digital citizenship, and online civic thinking. During our debates, it is not surprising that tolerance begins with truthful information.

California needs to improve here.

Before immigrating to the Golden State, I lived in Syria, where a decade of civil war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced more than 7 million refugees. Disinformation and propaganda on social media promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin helped fuel the war.

One of the greatest strengths of the Internet is also its greatest weakness. Our connectedness brings us together, but it also makes us vulnerable to lies designed solely to undermine civic discourse.

According to California researchers investigating conspiracies, Putin’s cybersoldiers fight online debates, spread fake news about laser beams that start our wildfires, question COVID-19 vaccines, and work non-stop to turn us against each other.

Recognizing the fake news fog that is distorting Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter starts with recognizing the problem exists. We’re doing this in California, where our students are increasingly on the alert as they scroll through social media.

But all must be more vigilant and point out lies. Spreading the truth depends on all of us. Fortunately, California is taking steps in the right direction.

This article was originally published by CalMatters. Huda Aljord teaches Arabic and cultural studies at Riverside City College and is a board member of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, a Syrian democracy support organization.

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