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Media Literacy and the Virtual Watercooler

Everyone is weary of the endless online noise coming from political commentators, cyberbullies and miscellaneous ranters, especially during this election cycle. Yet, there is a sense of general apathy about taking preventive action. Some are afraid that responding to hateful rhetoric will only add fuel to the fire, others fear they will face decontextualized judgment or worse yet—be de-friended online—and others may have justifiable concern for their safety. Perhaps they’re right. All this information overload can blur the contours of truth, resulting in a paralyzing “participant fatigue” that leaves people feeling hopeless and demoralized. This week is national Media Literacy Week and Internet Safety is one of the many subjects that fall under the media literacy umbrella. Learning how to be informed instead of entertained can move our society in a positive direction, and this task is not up to just the media consumer. It is also the responsibility of content creators and the media to offer and encourage the use of the media literacy tools that can help them make more informed decisions. For example, Syfy aired six episodes of a compelling series titled, “The Internet Ruined My Life,” featuring in-depth stories about survivors of online harassment. Each of the stories revealed that had the victims known better, they would not have been thrown under the bus by online mobs. Each 30-minute episode offers an often-shocking inside look at how the situations could happen to anyone. Bringing these issues to the forefront in entertainment programming is important because it teaches people that sticks and stones may break their bones, but words can actually hurt them. Syfy offered follow up resources for preventative online safety, but there were no on-air mentions to let audiences know this information was available. As co-founder of, a site dedicated to making sure “No Grownup Left Behind” when it comes to using digital online tools safely, we saw “The Internet Ruined My Life” as an important opportunity to provide after-show “virtual watercooler” advice from lawyers, internet safety experts and psychologists via live “IRML After Show” chats. These 30-minute interactive web chats featuring major thought leaders such as internet safety expert Sue Scheff, Toni Birdsong, Family Safety Evangelist for Intel Security, and others provided an online forum the morning after each episode aired. The format allowed every person to freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies. Fortunately, the after chats were so successful that Syfy added them (along with other Cyberwise resources) to their website’s list of Internet Safety Resources for any viewers seeking out advice, and we applaud them for their efforts.

Given the transparency of the internet, “We’ve passed out a 21st-century flame to everyone on this planet without guidelines on how to use it responsibly,” says expert Richard Guerry, Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication (IROC2). “Everything we do is public and permanent.” The long-term consequences this will have on our future of our nation and our government remains to be seen. The good news is not all journalists and news operations take the online and on-air political bashing by presidential candidates lying down. In the past week, CNN’s Brian Stelter called out Donald Trump for delivering his “biggest lie” by questioning the integrity of the election process thanks to a “conspiracy” of a rigged elections with media support. “He is alleging a massive conspiracy, thereby creating a massive challenge for the news media,” Stelter said. Stelter, a media critic and host of the Sunday show Reliable Sources, said, “I’m proud that journalists are standing up, individually, speaking up in ways that we rarely see. They’re not anti-Trump. They’re pro-democracy.”

NBC News is not turning the other cheek when it comes to the impact media is having on how our nation is being formed. They just recently addressed the fact that the “nasty campaign rhetoric” is putting parents and teachers in a tough spot, making the presidential election practically a defensive sport. Their insightful article offered suggestions and tips by experts, including Cyberwise co-founder Diana Graber, on how to handle presenting unseemly commentary on topics such as “pussygate,” racism, and more to children. Graber explains that even though it seems “nearly impossible to fully shield children from this year’s ‘unprecedented’ campaign rhetoric,” setting boundaries can teach children that such behavior is not the social norm.

The lack of media literacy education in our country has not fallen on deaf ears to CNN digital correspondent, Kelly Wallace, who moderated the Media Literacy Week Digital Summit last week at Twitter’s San Francisco’s headquarters. Her recent series of articles on include “High School Debate Champs Critique the Presidential Debate” where we adults could learn a thing or two and other media literacy subjects such as “Should You Let Your Kids Watch The Next Presidential Debate?

Yep, gone are the days when media literacy was mainly associated with education and universities. We need more journalists and media makers to help viewers utilize critical thinking skills when consuming media, and more shows like “The Internet Ruined My Life” to present real-life cautionary tales produced not just to entertain, but to take it a step further and enlighten and inform.

Originally posted 11-2-16 in the PromaxBDA Daily Brief at

Cynthia Lieberman is co-founder, and has a graduate degree in Media Psychology and Social Change. She also owns Lieberman Communications, a content marketing and PR consultancy firm for Fortune 500 companies, including major Hollywood studios, Virtual Reality and healthcare. She is also c. Lieberman serves on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), and teaches Social Media Marketing at UCLA Extension. @liebermanc @BeCyberwise.

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