Editor’s Note: Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Unless it’s the disclaimer, maybe

Twenty-one percent of adults in the United States are either illiterate or functionally illiterate.

In the 2020 data used by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), literacy is defined as the “ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

About 79% of U.S. adults aged 16-65 are able to do this with medium-to-high English literacy skills, according to the NCES 2020 data. This means they have literacy skills sufficient to “complete tasks that require comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing or making low-level inferences.”  

In contrast, one in five U.S. adults (21%) has difficulty completing these tasks. This translates to 43 million U.S. adults who are illiterate or functionally illiterate in English. Wisconsin is one of the more literate states. About 10-15% of our population has below a fifth-grade level of literacy. This contrasts with a state such as Alabama, where more than 30% of the population reads and writes at a fifth-grade level.

Low literacy has many social repercussions. It’s linked to poverty, crime and poor health care. The numbers are high enough in the United States for those who study the issue to believe America has a literacy crisis.

I looked into this as background for what I really wanted to talk about, which is digital literacy: what it is and what skills are required for it. 

Digital literacy is often shorthanded to “digital problem solving,” and lots of data are factored, including the ability to manipulate input and output devices. I wasn’t as interested in all that; I wanted to know why so many people believe what they read online or on social media when they don’t know the source.

This literacy data answered some of the questions I had. People need to be able to understand what they’re reading, be able to compare and contrast the information, be able to paraphrase what they’ve read and be able to reach even a low-level conclusion about it based on evidence and reasoning. This applies no matter where you’re reading something.

Some just don’t have those skills. But 79% do. So what happens that skills go missing when we’re gauging the validity of a website or story?

This is not a new problem. “Don’t believe everything you read” was a warning that preceded the internet, but now the opportunity to instigate mass misinformation, delusions and flat-out falsehoods is exponentially greater.

I’m not saying I’m immune to this. Sometimes I don’t believe a story and it turns out to be solid information. I do try to mitigate the possibility that I’m being manipulated or duped. When I come across a story from an unfamiliar website, I check the About tab for the disclaimers and disclosures. You’ll learn there whether the site is political or satirical, whether it’s a one-cause site or supports a Super PAC, or whether it stands by the data presented as accurate and complete.