(NEW YORK)—A new study by the Stanford Social Media Lab evaluating the effectiveness of PEN America’s media literacy workshops found the interventions significantly improved participants’ ability to identify and resist mis- and disinformation. The analysis concluded that the workshops, conducted in 2021 and offered in partnership with organizations serving Asian American and Pacific Islander, Black, Latino, and Native American communities, significantly improved participants’ digital media literacy skills and ability to distinguish between true and false information.

PEN America, the free expression organization, has long documented the threat to open discourse and democracy posed by the deliberate spread of false information, or disinformation, beginning with the groundbreaking 2017 report, Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth.

To counter that threat PEN America launched its Knowing the News media literacy program in 2020 to equip the public with the knowledge and skills to defend against disinformation. In 2021, PEN America partnered with four organizations that are deeply invested in the health and empowerment of their respective communities: Mi Familia Vota, National Action Network; Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the National Congress of American Indians to stem the impact of COVID-19- and vaccine-related misinformation in communities of color.

In order to better understand the effectiveness of our media literacy workshops, PEN America partnered with the Stanford Social Media Lab to evaluate the workshops. As the Stanford researchers note in their white paper, there is surprisingly scant research available assessing the effectiveness of interventions to counter the impact of disinformation in communities of color, despite the fact that these communities are frequent targets of disinformation.

In its assessment, the Stanford Social Media Lab found PEN America’s interventions improved skills across the board, and the findings offered early evidence of the particular advantage of reaching workshop participants through familiar sources like local non-profits or peer networks they already know and trust to improve trust in news, especially on health and political topics. The workshops were led by PEN America experts and featured doctors, fact-checkers, and organizers known and trusted by the partner organizations’ respective communities, in an effort to deepen trust in the message.

Summer Lopez, PEN America’s chief program officer for free expression, said: “Disinformation poses an increasingly virulent threat to free expression and democracy, and the best defense is an empowered public, equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify and resist attempts to deceive. We are pleased that this study demonstrates the effectiveness of tailored, community-informed media literacy programming, and we hope it will make a meaningful contribution to the growing field of research seeking to understand what interventions can lessen the pernicious effects of deliberate attempts to deceive the public.”

Jeff Hancock, who is the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication and founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, said: “This study encapsulates some of the most important work in dealing with misinformation. Overcoming the challenges of misinformation requires us to center the perspectives of communities of color and to work alongside organizations that can speak to their strengths and needs. These studies show that equipping everyday citizens with the tools to sort fact from fiction can help bolster resilience against false claims.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice stated: “AAJC enjoyed partnering with PEN America for this important and timely program. As effective strategies to combat mis- and disinformation must be grounded in community needs, we appreciated the people-centered approach that the media literary sessions took. We hope the techniques and resources shared during the session left our attendees better-equipped to fight back against health-related falsehoods they might encounter day to day.”

The evaluation’s findings included:

  • Significant overall improvement in participants’ digital skills including: use of reverse image search to identify real versus fake content; use of fact checking tools; click restraint to resist clicking on the first source and make more informed choices about which source to go to first, and monitoring emotional reactions to headlines, which can increase susceptibility to disinformation.
  • Significant improvement in participants’ ability to distinguish between true and false news. Participants’ likelihood of correctly evaluating the veracity of a headline rose from 47% to 61%.
  • Strong improvement in their ability to detect COVID-19 misinformation, from a pre-intervention average of 53% to a post-intervention average of 82%.
  • Increased likelihood to investigate headlines to identify facts vs. untruths by applying their new skills. Participants’ investigation of a news headline increased from 6% to 32% after participating in a workshop.

Additionally, the Stanford Social Media Lab noted that while many current approaches to disinformation protection encourage people to use fact-checking resources, that information is often only available in English. PEN America’s work also identified a lack of credible information sources in languages other than English as a critical gap in the fight against disinformation, especially given that false information is often rapidly translated into multiple languages.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057