Media literacy: what are the challenges and how can we move towards a solution?
As governments seek to tackle various issues in the digital age, media literacy (or digital) is often cited as the solution, in part because it is much less controversial than attempting to regulate the internet. LSE professor Sonia Livingstone, chair of the LSE Commission on Truth, Trust and Technology, highlights the complexity of the challenges of improving media literacy and the first steps policy makers should take. This article is based on his presentation at a UNESCO event for World Media and Information Literacy Week 2018.
The last time I wrote about media literacy, I was happy to see that as the media become more and more involved in everything in society, there is more and more emphasis on media literacy. ‘importance of ensuring that people have media literacy not just to engage with the media but to engage with society through the media. But I have also been frustrated by some of the superficial gestures by policy makers in favor of media literacy and media literacy, seemingly without understanding what is involved or what the challenges are.
Miracle solution ?
In our increasingly complex media and information environment, media literacy is being hailed as a miracle solution – hopefully addressed by ad hoc awareness campaigns conducted by CSR brand promotion departments, or by issuing – issued injunctions to the (apparently inaudible and otherwise concerned) Department of Education. The motivation is rarely educational but rather the policy of “last resort”.
So, in the face of the multiple issues of hate speech, or cyberbullying, or pirated YouTube content, or fake news, etc., we are seeing urgent calls to better manage the media environment – in particular, to regulate the internet. But in the face of positive and negative rights disputes, regulatory challenges, powerful global corporations, and short-term political expediency, this call quickly turns into a call for the supposedly “softer” solution of educating the public who uses the internet.
Let me be clear. I am 100% for educating the public. I have spent years advocating for more and better media literacy. In this digital age, I think the time for media literacy has come, and its advocates should seize the opportunity with both hands and push the cause forward with all their energy.
But energy and enthusiasm are more efficiently spent when the challenges at hand are properly recognized. So let me lay them out, as I see them, lest our energies be wasted and the window of opportunity lost.
First, three educational challenges
- Investment. Make no mistake: education is a costly solution in terms of time, effort and infrastructure. It needs pedagogy, teacher training, educational resources, audit and evaluation mechanisms. To run schools, governments dedicate an entire ministry to achieving it – yet they are simultaneously heavily criticized for their failures, and yet constantly under siege to solve even more pressing societal ills.
- Reaching adults not in education or training is an even greater challenge, seldom met in any area of demand. So who is in charge, and who are or should be the agents of change? Answers will vary by country, culture and purpose. But they must be identified so that the actions of civil society, public services such as libraries, industry and other private actors can be coordinated.
- Exacerbated inequalities. We like to see education as a mechanism for democratization, because everyone has the right to school and to training. But research consistently shows that education affects life outcomes in different ways, favoring already advantaged people and not sufficiently benefiting the less advantaged, especially the so-called “hard to reach” people. What proportion of media literacy resources is provided equally to all (at the risk of exacerbating inequalities) and what proportion is intended for those who need it most? (I don’t know the answer, but someone should know it).
Then there are the digital challenges
- Mission creep. As our lives become more and more publicized – work, education, information, civic participation, social relations and more – the reach of media literacy expands accordingly. As recently as today, in my Twitter feed, I read urging people to:
– Understand how automated black box systems make potentially discriminatory decisions
– Distinguish the signals of intent and credibility behind disinformation and disinformation to fight against “fake news”
– Identify when a potential attacker is using their smart home technology to spy on them
– Weigh the implications for privacy when using public services in smart cities
It is therefore vital to set priorities.
- Readability. As I have observed before: we cannot teach what is impossible to learn, and people cannot learn to read and read what is unreadable. We can’t teach people about data literacy without transparency, or what to trust without markers of authenticity and authoritative expertise. Thus, people’s media literacy depends on how their digital environment has been designed and regulated.
- Report the positive points. The rapid pace of socio-technological innovation means that everyone is struggling to keep pace, and battling new damage that unexpectedly arises is extremely demanding. The result is that attention to “hygiene factors” in the digital environment dominates efforts – so media education risks being limited to safety and security. Our greatest ambitions for mediated learning, creativity, collaboration and participation are continually carried over into the process, especially for children and young people.
For the media literacy community itself, there are very real challenges of expertise and sustainability. These can be annoying, if not invisible, to those who call for the quick fix. But they matter.
- Capacity and durability. The world of media literacy includes many small, enthusiastic, even idealistic initiatives, often based on a few people with remarkably little funding or sustainable infrastructure. The world of media literacy is a bit like a start-up culture without venture capitalists. We can speak of a good story, but there is always a risk of losing what has been won and having to start over.
- Proof and evaluation. When you look closely at the cited evidence in this area, it is not as strong or precise as you would like. Even setting aside the now tedious debate over definitions of media literacy, measurement challenges remain. Perhaps because of the lack of agreed-upon actions, there is more evidence of outputs than results, of short-term scope rather than long-term improvements. There is remarkably little independent evaluation of what works. Compare media literacy interventions to other types of educational interventions: where are randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews of the evidence, focused attention on specific subgroups of the population, quantified benefit assessments compared to the investment?
Last but not least, there is the policy of media literacy
- “Empower” the individual. In political discourse in particular, the call for media literacy and education to solve the problems of digital platforms tends, even inadvertently, to burden the individual with dealing with the explosion of complexities, problems and possibilities of our digital society. In a political field where governments fear they will not have the power to attack the big platforms, it is the individual who must show wisdom, become media buff, take up the challenge. Since, of course, the individual can hardly succeed where governments cannot, media literacy policy risks not only weighing down but also blaming the individual for the problems of the digital environment.
As Ioanna Noula recently put it, “by emphasizing kindness and ethics, these approaches also undermine the value of conflict and dissent for the advancement of democracy” and they “decontextualize” citizenship. so that “the attention of the adults and young people concerned is diverted. social conditions that make young people vulnerable. So instead of media-savvy citizens exercising their communication rights, the emphasis is on dedicated citizens, in a moralizing discourse.
How can we make a difference?
I will make three suggestions, to end on a positive point:
Before making a case for media literacy as part of a solution to the latest socio-technological ills, let’s take a holistic approach. This means, let’s really clarify what the problem is and identify what role digital media or technologies are playing in this problem – if at all! We might even ask for a “theory of change” to clarify how the different components of a potential solution are supposed to work together. And, getting ambitious now, what about a responsible organization – whether local, national or international – responsible for coordinating all these actions and evaluating the results?
Next, let’s find out about all the other players, so that we can articulate what part of the solution media literacy can bring, and what others will bring – regulators, policy makers, civil society organizations, the media. themselves – thus avoiding the insidious tendency to get thrown at the feet of media educators. We might further expect – demand – that other actors embed media literacy expectations into their very DNA, so that all organizations that shape the digital environment share the task of explaining how they work to the public and to provide user-friendly accountability mechanisms.
Finally, let’s take issues of value, empowerment and politics seriously. What does the good look like? Are dedicated citizens kind to each other online, behaving well in an orderly fashion? Or are they deliberate, debating, even conflicting citizens? Citizens who express themselves via digital media, organize themselves via digital media, protest to the authorities and insist on being heard? I think it should be the latter, not least because our societies are increasingly divided, angry and powerless. It’s time for people to be heard, and it’s time for the digital environment to live up to its promise of democratization. But it requires a change on the part of policy makers. We should not just ask whether people trust the media or the government. We should also ask ourselves whether the media trusts people and treats them with respect. What if governments, relevant authorities, and civic organizations trust people, treat them with respect, and hear what they say.
This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the LSE Media Policy Project or the London School of Economics and Political Science.