By Sandy Graham

When your Auntie Alice starts sharing conspiracy theories on social media, do you go ballistic and demand to know where she got these cockamamie ideas? Fire back with the truth?

Shaming is “the absolutely worst place to start,” said Nora Benavidez, director of PEN America’s U.S. Free Expressions Programs, during the March 18 online panel discussing dis- and misinformation for Colorado’s Sunshine Week. “We are in a culture where we call people out … and I often say, how do you call someone in?” She suggested calmly offering accurate resources to a friend or relative posting dis- or misinformation or asking them to explain their views.

The panel, “Truth Be Told: The Proliferation of Online Misinformation and Disinformation and What We Can Do About It,” was organized by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition for Sunshine Week, a yearly national recognition of the importance of open government.

Colorado Press Women; The Colorado Sun; The Denver Post; 9NEWS; Denver7; GroundFloor Media—CenterTable; Society of Professional Journalists—Colorado Pro Chapter; Law Office of Steven D. Zansberg, LLC; Fred Brown; and League of Women Voters of Colorado were sponsors of the CFOIC event.

The lively and informative conversation was moderated by media strategist Nancy Watzman. Joining Benavidez were Alex Roetter, former senior vice president of engineering at Twitter, and Damaso Reyes, journalist and media literacy expert.

“We’ve all seen the spread of online dis- and misinformation and what it can do,” Watzman said, pinpointing the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as one extreme example.  She pointed out that other new technology has caused concerns over the years — the chair of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961 called television “a vast wasteland” — but that social media is different.

“The scale and power of the tool” sets it apart, agreed Roetter, who left Twitter several years ago. “Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook CEO) writes something and 2 billion people see it.” Social media also allows anonymity, he added.

He noted that Twitter really had no master plan, “no serious investment” in its health and safety team and “blind adherence” to free speech.” He said he found Twitter’s “hands off content (approach) troubling and more troubling over time.”

Reyes, who formerly worked for the News Literacy Project, said he was hopeful about the future because “media literacy education works.” When teaching media literacy to students, he found at first, they couldn’t tell the difference between a video of Martin Luther King Jr.  and a clip from the movie “Selma,” but  as the class went on, they became much savvier about information sources.

“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” he said. “Do we have a long way to go? We do.”

Other thoughts from the panel:

•    Be aware of confirmation bias. We are inclined to believe things that support our beliefs.

•    Pause before you share on social media. Whose information is this? Will it inflame or inform?

•    Never “feed trolls” on social media. Step away if you don’t know whose information you’re engaging with.

•    Removing social media accounts can be a positive step. Online misinformation about election fraud dropped 73% the week after several social media sites suspended the accounts of former President Donald Trump and his key allies.

Click here to watch a recording of the entire Sunshine Week panel on CFOIC’s website.

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Jean Otto Friend of Journalism Awards

Prior to the Sunshine Week panel, the CFOIC presented the Jean Otto Friend of Journalism Awards, its highest honor, to the five women responsible for forming and developing the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab).

CFOIC chair Steve Zansberg called the women “visionaries” before presenting the awards to Jill Farschman, Susan Greene, Tina Griego, Melissa Davis and Laura Frank. COLab is a nonprofit, statewide effort to strengthen high-quality local journalism, support civic engagement and ensure public accountability. More than 120 Colorado newsrooms have joined COLab.

The Otto awards, named for Jean Otto, a former Rocky Mountain News editorial page editor and a founder of the CFOIC, recognize extraordinary contributions to the public’s right to know.