It’s a usual Friday night; you’re at a friend’s place. A hush falls over the group as one of the boys pipes up: “Yeah nah but Andrew Tate has some good ideas too”.  

Hopefully, you’ve never found yourself in this position, but you might know someone who has. Figures like Andrew Tate, known for his proud advocacy of misogyny among young men, aren’t uncommon on social media and their followings are microcosms of a much larger issue: a deficit of critical thinking in online education and spaces. 

Unfortunately, social media platforms aren’t adequately removing hate speech or radicalising figures, nor can we expect filters and rules to ever be enough. With this in mind, we need ways of educating (often young) viewers on how to decide what and who to trust. 

I recently attended a live recording of the Principle of Charity podcast at Sydney Writers’ Festival where this idea was raised with comparisons between non-fiction books and videos. Philosopher A.C. Grayling and art historian and content creator Mary McGillivray spoke at length about the various limitations of each medium. While both were reluctant to take polarising positions, eventually a sticking point did arise. 

Grayling argued that the relative accessibility and ease of creating social media content makes it more dangerous, given its ability to platform those with little-to-no credibility or expertise. This echoes an interesting evolutionary theory called “costly signalling”, which says the more someone invests in sending a message – i.e. the more “costly” it is for them – the more likely it is to be trustworthy. On the other hand, the less someone invests in sending a message – the “cheaper” it is – the more likely it is to be untrustworthy or noisy. This is one reason why handwritten letters tend to be more thoughtful than fleeting social media posts. McGillivray’s response was two-fold.  

Firstly, she noted that there are plenty of questionable published books out there by charlatans and the like – books that prey on insecurities to make sales, or simply peddle well-disguised misinformation. So, this isn’t a problem unique to social media. 

Secondly, to which Grayling conceded, traditional avenues of information dissemination are often gatekept behind propriety, things like formal educational status or money. This is the flip side to costly signalling when applied to humans: only those who can “afford” to make costly communications will be heard and believed, so the wealthy and powerful will often dominate public discourse.  

There are significant benefits, then, to having a medium that’s accessible to those who have never been afforded the circumstances to engage in these systems. There is still a trade-off: low-cost communication means potential for an oversaturation of inaccurate or useless information, but that is something we must contend with if we want to avoid restricting these things to the already-rich-and-powerful.  

McGillivray herself is in the middle of a PhD, not yet an expert in the eyes of academia, yet she has amassed a huge following for her historical art analysis and edutainment (educational entertainment). Using her MPhil in History of Art and Architecture, she is able to produce well-researched and engaging videos that educate an audience that might not otherwise have been introduced to the topic at all. 

Unfortunately, it’s especially easy for poor video information to also garner audiences because of its reliance on charisma above all else. We can be easily swayed by charisma as we passively consume it, because passive consumption leaves us more open to suggestion.  

We can be prone to dismissing legitimate information and being overly charitable towards frauds based almost entirely on aesthetics.  


Whom should we listen to? 

Who qualifies as an expert, and when is being an expert relevant? 

To figure this out, we have to talk about the combination of trust and critical thinking. Regardless of whether we’re picking up a book or scrolling on our phones, we need to know whether we can trust what we’re consuming and who we’re consuming it from, else we become yet another cog in machines of misinformation.  

Unfortunately, there are many forces in the world that try to deceive us every day, from advertisers to influencers to corporations to politicians. To gain a good sense for what to trust, we need to know what to distrust by developing our critical thinking skills. This process isn’t simple, yet anyone can do it.  

The first step is acknowledging that we are sometimes gullible and generally easy to convince with rhetoric. Speaking quickly, using jargon, seeming confident, having a high production quality are all things we intuitively associate with intelligence or expertise and yet they can often act as a distraction from the incoherence of the information being presented to us. This isn’t our fault – they’re designed and used specifically to lower our intellectual guards – but it is something we can learn to recognise and counter.  

On top of this, even when we are capable of being critical of what we consume, we’re often bombarded with so much information that it makes it almost impossible anyway. In these situations, we rely on heuristics and biases to varying degrees of success. These mental shortcuts let us make faster decisions, but that speed often comes at a cost of accuracy.  


Being discerning of sources 

One clear thing to look for is the source of the information.  

Check if the information comes from a generally trusted source, like a government website, a university, a peer-reviewed study or a reputable news outlet. While it’s dangerous to be overly sceptical, it is important to note that critical thinking should also extend to sources you trust. Just like anything else, governments, universities or other sources can be biased in certain ways, and being aware of those biases can help you understand the motivations behind different ways of presenting otherwise accurate information. 

For example, news with a repeated focus on or omittance of a certain group of people can imply to viewers a false sense of significance. Without context, even accurate information can be used to misrepresent a wider picture. 

There are many organisations dedicated to fact-checking and bias-checking news and politics, so using them alongside your broader consumption of information can give you a more comprehensive perspective on different issues. For fact-checking of global news trends, there is the International Fact Checking Network, or in Australia there is the Australian Associated Press Fact Check. These resources can help us identify common misinformation trends.

However, there are other ways to train ourselves to be aware of our own biases when we consume media and especially news. For example, Ground News is an organisation that collates news stories from thousands of sources and demonstrates how the same stories are presented differently depending on the general political slant of the publication. This is an effective way of learning about how even subtle differences in language can have a drastic impact on our interpretation of news. Using resources like this is a good way to develop media literacy by training yourself to recognise patterns in media coverage. 


Critical reflection 

Many people aren’t going to get their information straight from the source, though. Let’s say you have found an author or a creator that you like. Maybe your friend even told you about it. How do you know if you should trust them? 

Again, the first thing to check is where they’re getting their information from. If they’re presenting evidence, then check that that evidence is coming from a place that you know to be trustworthy. This isn’t a check that you need to do all the time but putting this effort in at least at the beginning will give you a foundation for trusting this person in the future.  

If they aren’t presenting empirical evidence, you can check their credentials and history. Do they have reputable qualifications in a relevant field? Do they have a relevant lived experience to speak from? Do they have a history of presenting accurate information? Is what they’re saying consistent with their own points and with what you know from trusted sources? 

While not all necessary, these are all different ways of making sure that you critically reflect on the news and media you consume.  

Other useful ways to engage critically with media are to challenge yourself to identify different aspects of it. The intended audience can tell you a lot about a publication, like what their motivations or affiliations might be. You can identify this by looking at the language used and asking yourself how it reflects who it is trying to speak to. You can also find potential bias by imagining how the information might sound different if it was written with another kind of audience in mind. 

Another method of testing your understanding of a piece of news is to try to identify what the intended message is by summarising it in 1-2 sentences. Doing this is a good way to practice understanding the implications of lots of bits of information as a whole. It will also help you to ascertain underlying assumptions that are made without the viewer’s comprehension. Identifying these assumptions will help prevent you from being misled.  

For example, there is a general implicit assumption that if something is in the news, then it is important. But you might not agree with that. Sometimes things are reported on or spoken about to cause them to seem important, so by questioning that foundational assumption we can begin to critique the content and motivations behind certain information.  

Identifying these can help you determine how to process the information being presented to you and whether you need to scrutinise it further. Developing critical thinking skills to increase your media literacy is an important part of ethical consumption because it helps us navigate systems of power and slowly prevents the spread of harmful information and ideas. 


The Principle of Charity is a podcast that injects curiosity and generosity back into difficult conversations, bringing together two expert guests with opposing views on big social issues.

copy license