It’s already becoming a theme everywhere I look: 2020 was an extremely difficult year, and 2021 will be too. This is true for the events of everyday life but also on your social media feeds.
No one could have predicted the chaos that unfolded on the internet in 2020 (and is still unfolding), fueled by disinformation campaigns and the rampant sharing of misinformation. But given my role leading MediaWise, Poynter’s digital media literacy and fact-checking initiative, I have three key predictions for the year ahead. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s not a pretty picture.
1. It’s going to get uglier
I always prefer to break bad news first: 2021 is going to get really ugly when it comes to disinformation and misinformation on people’s social media feeds. In 2020, we saw a crescendo leading up to Election Day and then a massive spike in the days, weeks and now months that have followed.
There have been some wins during these recent, difficult months, like some dents put in the QAnon movement in the fall. But QAnon conspiracy theorists loom large online and are not going away. The internet is a vast, wide-open, unchartered territory — there is always a place to go and land to grab. And at this point, the genie is out of the bottle and is going to be very hard to put back in.
The disinformation campaigns we’ve seen proliferate online are becoming well-oiled machines, getting stronger, pivoting faster, and delving deeper into people’s minds as the pandemic wears on. New strategies to infiltrate and sow division in families and communities will be developed using free technology, with origins both domestically and abroad attacking the U.S. and our democracy. This is something I can state with relative certainty, and I share with a heavy heart given the events of the past year.
Anyone who has family and/or friends with views across the political spectrum that they managed to see over the holidays, in one form or another, know what I’m talking about. If the dinner table was bad during the 2019 holidays, it only got worse this holiday season, even if it was over Zoom for many (you can find tips on how to have those exhausting conversations here).
2. Pandemic and political misinformation will dominate
Just like in 2020, the top targets for disinformation campaigns and widespread misinformation sharing will be the coronavirus and politics, and not just in the U.S. but around the world.
My biggest concern, beyond the persistent anti-mask and COVID-19 denialism misinformation spreading online, is disinformation surrounding vaccines. We’ve already seen misinformation go viral that claims that Bill Gates will include a microchip implant in vaccines, some people believe there is no pandemic at all (this is still a thing), and at least one celebrity has already posted anti-vaccine content to millions of followers.
This last point is why MediaWise has started offering digital media literacy and fact-checking training for influencers, celebrities and politicians. Misinformation shared by influential accounts is one the fastest ways that misinformation can spread. In the blink of an eye, a bogus piece of content that can have damaging consequences to people’s health and well-being in real life can be seen by millions of people. We saw many instances in 2020 of celebrities sharing misinformation, many times unknowingly, and while I hope that influential accounts will take more responsibility and vet the content they share, I’m doubtful this will significantly change in 2021. (But we’re working on it! You can email us at email@example.com to learn more about our influential accounts trainings, or request one.)
Six in 10 Americans plan to get a vaccine, according to a survey from Pew Research Center in December, but two in 10 of those surveyed said they do not plan to get vaccinated and do not expect more information becoming available about the vaccines to change their minds. That’s a lot of space to work with if you are a bad actor trying to sow discord and create more chaos in our democracy.
Large-scale closed groups that are not moderated or open to fact-checking programs continue to concern me going into 2021 (one example here). Social platforms can and do slap fact checks onto vaccine misinformation, or flat-out take down content that is misleading or damaging, and that is great. But it’s these closed networks that keep me awake at night.
As for politics, a movement driven by misinformation means the 2020 U.S. election is not really “over” for many Americans. Joe Biden will be sworn in on Inauguration Day but that does not mean political misinformation will end once President Donald Trump leaves office. It will persist, and I fear the domestic weaponization of misinformation by both political parties is the new norm.
And this is not a problem exclusive to the U.S. There are political elections around the world in the year ahead which are at risk for disruption by inaccurate information spreading online, including in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Israel, Iran, Peru and Ecuador.
3. Media literacy will gain traction
You could call this prediction one of my 2021 wishes as well, and I am clearly biased as the manager of MediaWise, but I do believe 2021 will be a significant year when it comes to media literacy education in the U.S. and around the world.
In 2020, MediaWise’s digital media literacy tips, fact checks, and partnered and educational content was viewed nearly 40 million times across platforms. That was across our programs, including the MediaWise for Seniors program run by Alex Mahadevan, our MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network stories led by Alexa Volland, and our social campaigns and work with MediaWise Ambassadors, led by Heaven Taylor-Wynn. To put that figure into context, this project began in 2018 as a teen-focused program with the goal of reaching 1 million teenagers over two years. In 2020 alone, our program reached 20 million people, or 12% of the U.S. population. So yeah, you could say there is an appetite for digital media literacy skills.
More broadly, media literacy education is picking up steam in U.S. schools. At least 13 states recently proposed legislation, including New York, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. They’re following the lead of states like Texas, Florida, Ohio and Washington, which are leaders in this area, according to Media Literacy Now (these stats should be updated in the first quarter of this year, as this was from a report a year ago).
To the critics who say media literacy is not a solution to the massive and growing problem of misinformation online, make sure to check out this fall 2020 study by Stanford Social Media Lab that looks at the impact MediaWise training had on Americans ahead of the election. It might change your mind. I am hopeful that the big tech platforms will continue to help media literacy programs like MediaWise scale. It’s clear from research, like this new Stanford study, that media literacy training and education can be a significant part of the solution to this problem. Misinformation sharing on the viral level really needs to be stopped and must be addressed in 2021 as aggressively as if it were still an election year (and as noted above, it is an election year in many countries).
Because, let’s face it, 2021 is going to be another long year with people around the world glued to their screens, scrolling through their social media feeds. I’m hopeful that more positive changes will be made on the platform level and people will be open to learning media literacy skills and curious enough to fact-check what they see online before sharing it.
Katy Byron is the Editor and Program Manager of the MediaWise project at The Poynter Institute. MediaWise is a nonprofit, nonpartisan digital media literacy initiative for Americans of all ages. Byron is an expert in online misinformation and social media content, serving previously as the managing editor for news at Snapchat.