How ‘media literacy’ became the new ‘fake news’: a meaningless buzzword for business
Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy, released a report last month titled “Building Resiliency: Media Literacy as a Strategic Defense Strategy for the Transatlantic.It reads like a plan to indoctrinate students in corporatism and militarism under the auspices of media literacy. Jolls received a Fulbright-NATO Security Studies Award for studying “aspects of the current security ecosystem. information and the state of media education in NATO countries”.
Let’s give some historical context: NATO during the Cold War and has long since survived its original stated purpose of fighting the spread of communism. Political sociologist Peter Phillips has argued, for example, that NATO has morphed into a global army that engages in dubious conflict and human rights abuses in an effort to serve the “transnational capitalist class “.
Similar to the crisis created by the manipulated term “fake news,” media literacy is weaponized by organizations and individuals seeking to increase their power by influencing the public’s perception of reality. For example, Steve Bannon, former chief White House strategist for Donald Trump, has a long history of spreading misinformation. From 2012 to 2018, he was executive chairman of the site Breitbart News, which manipulated videos, fabricated stories and spread baseless conspiracy theories. Beginning in Bannon’s tenure, Breitbart published articles praising “media literacy” as a way to combat “fake news”, proclaiming that the site’s late founder, Andrew Breitbart, had mainstreamed media literacy in the platform. But what Breitbart means by the term — especially given the site’s track record — seems to run counter to traditional definitions of media literacy.
The standard definition of media literacy used in American education is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” In response to the panic over fake news after 2016, there has been a demand for more media literacy in schools. This provided a window of opportunity for big media companies – which had long sought to enter the classroom to advertise their products and collect student data – to move quickly to indoctrinate students with corporate propaganda under the aegis of “media education”.
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Jolls’ report only serves to reinforce these efforts, arguing that “corporate allocations for media literacy are few and far between.” It also appeals directly to the military-industrial complex – that is, the alliance between the military and related defense and national security industries – calling for “funding and programming of all corners: government, foundations, and the private sector (tech and media companies, other corporations).” Most Big Tech companies originated from the military-industrial complex and continue to serve its interests in many ways.
Rather than advocating for a critical media literacy standard, which reportedly captures the power dynamics invested in NATO and its long history of working against democracy and social justice, Jolls praises the “values that NATO states” represent, claiming that they represent an “excellent basis” for “media literacy initiatives. Indeed, to normalize NATO’s educational values, Jolls suggests what amounts to a psychological operations campaign, or psy-op, to deliver NATO’s version of media literacy to the public through “mass media, media aggregators such as AP, Reuters and LexisNexis, social media and influencers.” The report calls on NATO to “nurture grassroots efforts,” which sounds more like astroturfing.
The same military and intelligence communities that now call for “media literacy” have been producing and spreading fake news, at home and abroad, for at least 70 years.
Jolls’ report ignores that members of the same military and intelligence communities she praises have been producing and spreading fake news to American citizens, from the days of Operation Mockingbird in the mid-20th century until today. on various social media platforms. Nor does she ever discuss public efforts to undermine the ability of the military-industrial complex to dictate the truth. Earlier this year, for example, reviews of the two left and the right successfully lobbied for the Department of Homeland Security to scrap its Disinformation Governance Council, which was too reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984.”
Instead, Jolls appears to be following the lead of similar dubious military-industrial complex media literacy projects, such as the NewsGuard browser extension. Described as an “internet trust tool” and positioned as an objective tool for educators, NewsGuard has an advisory board made up of military veterans and former intelligence officers. Its rating system has a clear ideological bias: NewsGuard consistently promotes established and legacy media sources that echo a narrow range of status quo views – even when they have been proven to spread false information – and downgrades independent and alternative media that challenge the institutions of government, industry and the military. Jolls mirrors NewsGuard’s top-down approach to media literacy, calling on NATO leaders to determine “the intent and objectives of media literacy interventions” by choosing the “social issue, behavior or ideology” or the issue that educators need to focus on.
It’s certainly true that we need a critical media literacy program in the United States, but that’s not what Jolls and NewsGuard are promoting. Real media education empowers students to be empowered and sophisticated media users, asking their own questions about who controls media messaging and interrogating the power structures behind them. When a student is left dependent on the military-industrial complex to analyze content for them, that is not education. It is indoctrination.
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