Faced with a 'pandemic of misinformation,' Britannica — of encyclopedia fame — is on a mission to save truth

CHICAGO — Literacy and lifelong learning go hand in hand. Digital media literacy — the meaning behind messages we see in media — is no different, said Karthik Krishnan, global CEO of Britannica Group, which owns Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica.

According to Krishnan, digital media literacy is something that should be on everyone’s mind, adults and children, given all the remote learning we are doing during the pandemic. And knowing how to decipher fact from fiction and not just rely on the first link that pops up at the top of your online search is a skill that should be practiced daily.

“I think everybody needs to become media literate,” Krishnan said. “I think it’s not just something that we just focus on students. We, as adults, need to start thinking about it.

“As much as we say we don’t have time, we actually have more time. When I was studying, I had to take a bus to go to someplace or a library to get this information. All that time is being saved. The question here is what are we doing with that additional time? Are we spending it on TikTok? Or spending time on YouTube?”

With more remote learning taking place at home due to the pandemic, Britannica has stepped up its “Truth needs a champion” initiative, aimed at students and lifelong learners. The initiative began in 2018 when the reference source launched a free Chrome extension (Britannica Insights) that provided internet searchers with an additional layer of information at the top right of their results page. The move was intended to make people slow down and think twice before accepting search results as facts.

Since then, Britannica has provided more free resources to help bolster digital media literacy, including the Fight the Fake Fact Check sheet and Britannica for Parents’ Your Family’s Guide to Media Literacy.

We talked with Krishnan about the current and future landscape of literacy for the digital age and asked for his advice during a time when fact-checking presidential (and vice presidential) debate talking points is the norm. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: What should be in everyone’s digital media literacy tool kit?

A: We need to first raise awareness around knowledge dilution, intellectual laziness, clickbait — things that are all happening. And most people don’t even know that technology is taking you down a path that you are not in control. We think we are in control, but we are not — whether it’s search results or your social feed.

Secondly, we need to encourage both students and adults to ask questions. Third: Can I shut down my device for thinking time? This helps us strengthen our critical thinking. And the fourth one is, we have to start getting into the habit of identifying what are the five or 10 websites that we know are critical. Can I go to The Wall Street Journal when it comes to business news? Can I go to the BBC when it comes to political news? When it comes to local news, can I go to the Chicago Tribune to validate?

And finally, we all have to play a role in not posting or sharing anything on the internet without vetting it. How many times, whether it’s a WhatsApp or Twitter, we retweet things without really understanding is this true or not? We need to work together to keep the foundation of knowledge strong, improve our critical thinking, and if we can’t do that, I think the machines will take over.

Q: Did the pandemic make digital media literacy worse?

A: The question we need to ask ourselves is: Given that people have additional time since they’re not commuting, are they really taking the time to actually validate their sources of information? Are they pausing before actually forwarding something? And unfortunately, the answer, or at least what I’m seeing, is no.

Yes, the traffic to all our sites has gone up pretty significantly. There is positive feedback about programs that we’ve launched to help them, but at the same time, when there are emotional times like this, I don’t think people are really taking that additional time to read up on sources. I think we’re still just going from one thing to another, because emotionally people are struggling, dealing with the situation around us, which gets in the way of us being more critical thinkers.

Q: Have we ever been savvy with digital media literacy?

A: We live in a world where we’re actually consuming more information, but processing less and less information. When you look at how the search and social engines work, it’s based on popularity — what are people likely to click on? And scandalous information — not the truth kind of information — seems to be the one that’s coming to the top.

When you do a search, the results are actually tailored based on your penchant for clicking. The incentives are not aligned to surface the best possible information. The question we need to ask ourselves is, and that’s why we started this campaign: How do you change the role of technology to use it more as an enabler instead of as a crutch?

Britannica is focusing on building muscles, particularly with websites and other kinds of research: Who wrote this article? What is their background? Do they have any kind of expertise in that area? When was this article written? Because timeliness also has value as well. And importantly, where is the site located? These are simple things that you need to know. And lastly, why did that person write the article? Is that any kind of conflict of interest? These are what we call the five Ws.

And this is something that we actually encourage teachers to educate young adults, because if you don’t get the practice early on in your life as you go through the 21st century, in most cases, you’re going to be stuck with all the bad habits. You’re going to believe anything your device is going to tell you.

People realize technology has two sides: It can democratize things; it can also disenfranchise people. From my point of view, any crisis or structural change, like COVID-19, is an opportunity for us to reset, reshape and reimagine a better future. I think once people are being held more accountable and technology tools that we’re using from search engines to social media play much more of a role in terms of elevating better information, that’s when change is likely to happen. But it needs to happen sooner.


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