Huda Aljord teaches Arabic and cultural studies at Riverside City College and UC Riverside. She is a board member of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, an organization supporting democracy in Syria.
As an Arab Muslim woman teaching in California for the past decade, I have heard more hate and disinformation about my culture and faith than I care to remember.
Social media is where most disinformation starts. It spreads across California every day, ranging from conspiracy theories about climate change to rumors designed to undermine confidence in public health protections, or the hate speech that fueled the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi.
Thankfully, California is increasingly fighting back. Gov. Gavin Newsom this year signed Assembly Bill 587 into law, which requires social media companies to publicly explain their efforts to prevent hate speech, disinformation and extremism. Platforms must provide detailed reports of how they police themselves twice per year to the California Attorney General’s office.
State Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, a Burbank Democrat, said the goal of the bill is to encourage social media companies to reflect on the role they play in public discourse and the damage they cause.
Patrolling digital discourse is just one part of it. California educators are also trying to promote media literacy among younger generations like millennials and Generation Z – digital natives who only know the information age.
Since 2018, the California Department of Education has provided online instructional materials to help young people develop a wide range of digital-age skills. These include online privacy, preventing cyberbullying and identifying misinformation, including how to spot fake news.
For youth, detecting disinformation is especially important. More than 80% of middle school students could not tell the difference between online advertisements and news stories, a Stanford University study found, citing the need to bolster media literacy programs.
In my classes, I use the education department’s tools to help students develop tolerance, digital citizenship and online civic reasoning. During our debates, it is little surprise that tolerance starts with truthful information.
This is where California needs to improve.
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. Social media disinformation and propaganda promoted by Russian President Vladimir Putin helped fuel the war.
One of the internet’s greatest strengths is also its greatest weakness. Our interconnectedness brings us together, but it also makes us susceptible to lies created with the sole purpose of undermining civic discourse.
According to California researchers who study conspiracies, Putin’s cyber soldiers are antagonizing online debates, pushing fake news about laser beams starting our wildfires, questioning COVID-19 vaccines and working nonstop to turn us against each other.
Recognizing the fog of fake news that distorts Facebook, Instagram and Twitter starts with recognizing that the problem exists. We do this in California, where our students are increasingly on guard while scrolling through social media.
But everyone must be more vigilant, and lies need to be pointed out. Spreading truth depends on us all. California is thankfully taking steps in the right direction.