On May 9, 2023, two days after a white supremacist murdered eight people at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, Elon Musk condemned “the media” for disproportionately focusing on violence committed against people of color. This particular criticism took the form of a profoundly misleading graphic, which claimed to show that a huge majority of “interracial violent crimes” in the United States are conducted by Black people against white people, rather than the other way around.
Among other problems, the chart depicted the total number of victims of crimes by race, without adjusting for the fact that there are around five and a half times as many white Americans as Black Americans. In other words, there are more white victims of “interracial crime” in America because there are more white people—period. Nevertheless, the tweet went viral, being viewed more than 14 million times and retweeted by tens of thousands of additional people.
What makes incidents like Musk’s tweet so dangerous and complex is that it skews the truth by surgically selecting real data but leaving out key context. It also brings to light a bigger problem: While we are fundamentally primed to trust claims that cite data and statistics, we still do not know how to decipher fact from fiction. Put simply, our faith in data (paired with our poor data literacy) creates fertile ground for misinformation to flourish. And, with the explosion of new tools to generate and spread misinformation, this growing problem becomes a threat not just to our communities, but to our national security.
The U.S. has become an easy target for misinformation to flourish, as seen in Russia’s misinformation war in the 2016 U.S. elections. But beyond protection from foreign manipulation, a strong economy also plays a part in our national security and requires a data-literate workforce. In 2022, Forbes ranked data literacy as the second most in-demand skill over the next 10 years, only after digital literacy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor agrees that data heavy-roles are among the fastest growing jobs, with data science roles expected to grow 36% from 2021 to 2031.
The growing demand for data literacy reaches far beyond data science and engineering roles. A 2022 Tableau-funded global study by Forrester Consulting found that 82% of decision-makers expect basic data literacy from employees in every department, and predicts that by 2025 close to 70% of employees will be expected to heavily use data.
According to Tableau, being data literate means you are “able to explore, understand, and communicate with data in a meaningful way.” It also means you can parse out lies when someone tries to deceive you with “data-driven” arguments. However, a 2016 survey by Research + Data Insights found that while 88% of Americans felt claims are more convincing when accompanied by a chart or data analysis, only 34% of Americans were able to analyze whether the provided data was relevant or plausible.
Our data literacy problem is not expected to improve when our youngest generations join the workforce. Despite the widespread belief that young people are more prepared to thrive in a data-driven online ecosystem, a 2022 study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group found students’ ability to evaluate online information was alarmingly poor. In fact, most high school students observed by Stanford failed the study’s test of the ability to spot misinformation “backed” by data.
Without data literacy, we are not adequately equipped to make decisions of national importance. Critically, the most pressing political and policy issues of our time are deeply intertwined with data analysis—from the rise in average global temperatures to the gap in median wealth between white and Black households to the looming susceptibility of foreign manipulation that impacts our trust in our democracy.
The problem becomes dire with today’s AI’s advancements making it easier for foul players to spread misinformation. In particular, Large Language Model (LLM) AI programs are rapidly approaching the point where they will be able to output an arbitrarily high number of different, human-quality responses to a given prompt, allowing a single actor to flood the internet with endless numbers of authentic-seeming “people” all promoting or agreeing with a single, distorted claim. In such a world, the ability to independently analyze the validity of competing claims will be even more critical than it is today.
So, how do we tackle this looming issue? One way is looking at our peer democracies who’ve grappled with this challenge and found considerable success. Notably, we should look at Finland and Estonia.
Finland has long been a leader in education, consistently scoring first or second in reading, writing and math skills worldwide. But it is not just standard academic skills where they succeed— according to a 2022 study by the Open Society Institute, they also rank first among European countries in their resistance to misinformation. More importantly, Finland doesn’t wait until high school to talk about mis and disinformation, and doesn’t separate those lessons into a single unit of history or political science. Rather, discussions about misinformation and statistical literacy begin as early as pre-school, and have been integrated across the entire curriculum. As Finnish high school principal Kari Kivien explained in a 2020 interview with the Guardian, math classes, for example, might include a unit on how statistics can mislead; art could include a lesson on using images to manipulate audiences; or history classes might include a study of famous pieces of propaganda.
Like Finland, Estonia has long been the target of Russian propaganda. In April 2007, a sophisticated Russian misinformation campaign falsely led many Russian-speaking Estonians to believe their government planned to desecrate the graves of Soviet veterans. Shortly after, Russia hit Estonia with devastating cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, crashing the nation’s financial infrastructure, government communications, and media outlets. Within days, false news reports triggered massive riots that spread through the capital of Tallinn, leading to thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and at least one death. In the aftermath, Estonia made data education a key piece of their national defense strategy, from mandating data education K-12, to creating a government-sponsored Cyber Defense League, in which hundreds of Estonians in the tech industry volunteer to teach free classes on data security. Fifteen years later, Estonia is one of the data literate countries in the world and a leader in cyber security.
Can we mirror Finland and Estonia’s successful model in the U.S.? It would certainly require a significant shift in our educational landscape. But let’s weigh that challenge against the cost of inaction: A society increasingly divided by falsehoods, a democracy manipulated by skewed narratives, and a generation unprepared to navigate the digital world. Instead, we must invest in a future where truth reigns and data literacy affirms us in the interest of our safety.
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