Digital media literacy is important for everyone
Media literacy – the ability to analyze, evaluate and understand the news and information you consume – is a complex business these days.
To be media savvy in 2018, you must, as always, be able to determine who created your news and information, assess sources, and discern whether what you are reading or watching is news or opinion.
Now, however, you also need to understand the overall media “ecosystem” – the network of digital platforms over which news and information is distributed – and be able to discern whether the information on that platform is true or false.
Understanding the difference between real news and so-called “fake” news – the misinformation and misinformation that pollute the digital information ecosystem – requires a new kind of literacy: digital media literacy. This new literacy is based on a clear understanding of the immense power and pitfalls of platforms such as Facebook and Google, and their impact on the news and information you receive and share.
Indeed, these powerful platforms, on which the majority of people now consume their news, have fundamentally affected news, information and all that they have disrupted over the past decade. As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said in a groundbreaking and prescient 2016 speech titled “Facebook is eating the world,” news publishers have largely lost control of the distribution of the information they create.
“Now news is filtered through opaque and unpredictable algorithms and platforms,” Bell said. “One of the criticisms leveled at these companies thus far is that they have chosen the profitable parts of the publishing process and avoided the more expensive business of creating good journalism.”
As Facebook grabs global headlines this week with revelations about “data harvesting” the personal information of 50 million users, some relatively good news from the Google search platform, which aims to “elevate and strengthening quality journalism”, have unfortunately been somewhat overshadowed.
Building on the reality that “people come to Google looking for information they can trust, and that information often comes from reports by journalists and news organizations around the world,” Google announced Tuesday that it was committing $300 million over the next three years to “help journalism thrive in the digital age.” In addition to creating tools to help publishers subscribe to digital, the “Google News Initiative” has a strong focus on combating misinformation and developing media literacy.
On the critical front of media literacy, Google will partner with the Poynter Institute, Stanford University and the Local Media Association to launch MediaWise, a US project designed to improve digital information literacy among teenagers. This initiative is based on a Canadian pilot project called NewsWise, which is expected to roll out to Ontario and then across Canada in the coming months. NewsWise was developed by the Canadian Journalism Foundation (disclosure: I am a CJF board member) in partnership with CIVIX, a non-profit organization that seeks to foster civic skills for democracy among young Canadians.
I certainly applaud these important efforts to help young people understand the importance of real news in our democracy and also accept how easily fake news can go viral these days. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that digital media literacy is important not just for high school students, but for anyone with a smart phone in their hand. This week’s Facebook debacle is proof that we all need to understand the great power of platforms that control information, including our personal information.
Think about it: do you think you really understand the complexity of all these platforms and apps that bring you news and information and connect you to others?
I’m teaching a course I developed in digital media literacy at Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies this term and it’s clear to me that even university graduate students have everything so much need to develop a deeper understanding of digital technology, the power and dangers of platforms, their impact on news and information, and the spread of misinformation. And the same goes for their parents and grandparents, who have connected to Facebook and now also receive their news on their smartphones.
Indeed, digital media literacy – understanding how news and information is created, consumed and shared through powerful platforms – is important across generations and it is important for democracy.