May 13, 2021

NBC News correspondent and MediaWise ambassador Savannah Sellers says the impact of online falsehoods has never been more evident in everyday life.

“There’s a very real issue when people, no matter what age they are, can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction online,” Sellers said. All week, NBC News has been examining the influence of social media on American culture and society. Sellers and NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt cast a spotlight Wednesday on the work of media literacy organization MediaWise, which is part of Poynter.

Both Sellers and Holt are members of the MediaWise Ambassadors program, which partners with prominent journalists, authors and influencers to raise awareness of media literacy and help people sort fact from fiction.

Sellers spoke to two members of MediaWise’s Teen Fact-Checking Network who offered simple tips viewers could use to protect themselves from online falsehoods, such as looking for the original source of a claim or doing a reverse image search.

Holt also spoke to a participant in MediaWise’s training program for older adults. The MediaWise for Seniors program, which adapted the training originally created for teens, helped 85% of participants accurately recognize whether a story was true or false.

“I want people to know that fact-checking doesn’t have to be some big scary thing,” Sellers said. “We can equip you with some pretty simple tools that anybody can start to use in their daily lives to at least on a basic level understand whether something is true or not, which I think is a step in the right direction.”

Teen fact-checker Isaac Harte reiterated that message Thursday during an interview with Sellers on NBC’s “Morning News Now” program.

“Fact-checking is not rocket science. It’s so easy,” Harte said. He said fact-checking can be as simple as searching Google to see if the claim has already been debunked and checking whether other reputable sources are reporting on it.

The MediaWise segment is part of a larger push by NBC News to examine the role of social media in American culture and to give viewers simple tools to protect themselves against online falsehoods, loneliness, and exploitation. That was the focus of another segment Sellers produced that looked at teens’ experiences on social media with the goal of helping parents better understand their children’s online experiences.

“What I think parents don’t fully understand is when their kids’ lives exist fully in these spaces, the lines are a little bit blurred,” she said. Sellers gave the example of teens exchanging Snapchat handles rather than phone numbers with people they meet at parties, which can sometimes lead the recommendation algorithms to connect them with strangers.

“They don’t really know those people that have access to their Snapchat,” Sellers said. “And then somebody that they met in person that they thought was another person their age may then start soliciting things from them that they don’t necessarily want others to see.”

She said she hopes her reporting can help parents both protect and have more constructive conversations with their teenagers about how they are using social media.

“I think if we can all just take some small steps and understand what’s happening and how it works, that can clear up a lot of confusion and also help us take steps to make it a better, happier, healthier place for everyone,” Sellers said.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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