November 19, 2020

The pandemic changed everything this year — including the work I did with the MediaWise Voter Project Campus Correspondent Program to educate college students across the country before they voted in the 2020 election.

When I stepped off a plane in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida, in March, about to train to become a campus correspondent at The Poynter Institute, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what media literacy, misinformation or disinformation was.

Eight months later, I like to think of myself as an expert, and I hope that the thousands of college students our program has touched do, too.

The MediaWise Voter Project Campus Correspondents

MediaWise was born from the presence of rampant misinformation online. College students are an age group especially susceptible to this. Almost 50% of college students don’t fact-check before sharing a post, according to a survey by Project Information Literacy.

That’s why the campus correspondent program was created — to teach college students and first-time voters critical media literacy skills as the 2020 election approached. Instead of professionals teaching these skills, it was 11 college students from across the country: the MediaWise Voter Project Campus Correspondents. In the eight months between our training at the Poynter Institute and the election, we presented to classrooms virtually across the country, created robust and widely shared social media posts, and helped to educate over 1 million first-time voters and college students.

Since March, our program has individually trained almost 2,000 college students. We visited (virtually) 80 classrooms across 23 states with an hourlong, customized fact-checked presentation. Hundreds of thousands of students have seen our content on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

Campus correspondent Savannah Munn, a junior at Mississippi State University, said she thinks our program was effective because we focused on ways to reach college students on platforms they already used instead of asking them to come to us.

“We ingest news media through Twitter, through Facebook, through Instagram,” she said. “And so it was really important to me through this project to be able to create content that people might actually see and digest, and that benefited them in this election.”

Munn said the trainings weren’t just educational, but fun for both the correspondents and the students being trained.

“I really do feel like we had a positive impact on this election,” she said. “Because we gave students like us the tools to go into their polling places armed with accurate information so they could make decisions on their ballots that reflected them and reflected their ideals that weren’t based on myths and misinformation they found online.”

The impact of COVID-19

Our program was launched in March, right before COVID-19 hit. Originally, my role as a campus correspondent involved holding in-person trainings at classrooms on campus, tailgating at football games and helping out with a cross-country MediaWise Voter Project bus tour.

My training for the program at The Poynter Institute’s St. Petersburg office occurred during my spring break. I left Poynter’s office feeling nervous about what we were being asked to do, but inspired that we were going to make a difference this election cycle. I had no idea what was about to hit the country, and therefore our program.

Sonia Rao is a student at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Campus Correspondents. (Courtesy)

As college campuses across the country shut down and in-person events were canceled, we realized we had to make some changes.

Instead of in-person training, we turned to platforms like Zoom to visit classrooms and clubs. And we realized we weren’t just restricted to training students at our own campuses — there was nothing stopping us from virtually training as many students from as many colleges across the country as we could.

Campus correspondent Zuna Ramos, a sophomore at Boston University, said she was thrilled with the results.

“The fact that we pulled this off entirely through Zoom … I know, a lot of people are like, it’s so much easier to reach people with technology,” she said. “That’s true. But it’s so much easier to lose connection with people as well.”

She said at first, she was scared students wouldn’t be invested in the trainings because everyone was tired of Zoom meetings and online schooling. But she was wrong.

“Given the commentary by all the teachers, you can really see the growth of critical thinking and the attention of Gen Z throughout these trainings as the year progressed, which is good,” Ramos said. “It meant that people were listening.”

Combating election-related misinformation

The pandemic also heightened the extent of the misinformation we were combating, especially when it concerned the election.

I found myself unable to scroll through Twitter or TikTok without seeing inaccurate claims about voting by mail or election results. Candidates made false assertions about each other in speeches or videos that campus correspondents could fact-check.

I can’t think of a time where a rise in fact-checking and media literacy skills would be more relevant than right now.

Campus Correspondent Kyah Probst, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agreed.

“My favorite part of the program was knowing that I was taking a nonpartisan initiative to fix some of those systematic issues that we see it kind of going on with misinformation and media right now,” Probst said.

Our training covered the biggest misinformation threats on social media, from miscaptioned images and fake local news sites to manipulated videos. It went over how to spot deepfake videos and bots on Twitter.

We would use real-life examples, like a Facebook post claiming the U.S. Postal Service said mailing absentee ballots isn’t secure, or a fake tweet that purported to be from President Donald Trump saying a draft was about to begin, to show the students we trained how to fact-check what they saw online.

Although our program officially ended Nov. 3, I’m leaving knowing that hundreds of thousands of college students across the country are now equipped to battle misinformation.

Probst said she wants students to have come away from our program to be inquisitive and ask questions every time they come across a piece of information.

“I kind of imagine after this election, that people are going to wipe the sweat off their brow and be like, alright, let’s keep going,” she said.

That’s certainly how I feel. As a student journalist, I’ve found myself more conscious of both the information I’m taking in and spreading, especially when covering topics like how to vote during this election. I turn to tools like Google’s Fact Check Database, Propublica’s Politwoops and PolitiFact to continue to hold myself and my peers accountable. I can only hope that the 1 million college students we reached during this program are doing the same.

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Sonia Rao is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she is majoring in journalism and economics and serves as the city…
Sonia Rao

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