The world today feels mired in crisis. Democracies are under increasing pressure from fringe and populist political parties, who leverage the connective technologies of the web to further expand their voice and impact. In places like France, Italy, Poland, and Sweden, populist groups have surfaced with strong support for nationalist agendas, supported by online networks that build and spread information in support of such agendas. At the same time, more invasive monitoring of Internet activity helps political parties aggressively advance their agendas and further clamp down on opposition groups and active citizenries.
At the center of this emerging landscape are consistent cries of “fake news,” to discredit information that opposes the agendas of populist leaders. The emergence of fake news is largely a result of a ubiquitous digital culture, where social networks connect people in like-minded groups, and prioritize their sharing of information and support each other’s expression through likes, shares, and retweets. As these groups further grow in breadth and scope, they are able to leverage alternative media platforms for greater reach, share spectacular and sensational information, and discredit mainstream media and reporting that goes against their views, values, and ideologies. Fake news emerges in this landscape, where trust of media institutions is at an all-time low, and where a lack of regulation allows social networks to prioritize false information alongside real news stories.
In response to the current crisis of credibility and authenticity in mainstream and alternative media, media literacy is increasingly being seen the solution. Media literacy, commonly understood as a set of skills and competencies to help people effectively critique and create media, makes sense as a response mechanism against fake news. If people can better distinguish fact v. fiction, assess credibility, express thoughtfully, create meaningful content, and reflect on their media uses, then they will be able to prioritize media consumption habits that promote fact, credibility and diversity. This is indeed a noble call and one that I agree and support entirely. But in light of the current landscape for media and news in digital culture, we should openly question if our current approaches to media literacy are best positioned to meaningfully respond to a media landscape dominated by hidden algorithms and a deep distrust for our civic institutions.
A recent study by a team of researchers at MIT found that fake news was perpetuated by users who were quick to reshare information that aligned with their views and values, regardless of the credibility of the information. Researchers at Penn State found that people, with no heed to the credibility and source, often choose to advocate and promote information that aligns with their worldviews. Another study by researchers at Yale found that those spreading fake news were small in number but proficient in leveraging networks to spread stories far and wide. These studies point to a new media ecosystem where “real” news organization compete alongside alternative media and personal expression for eyeballs and clicks. And they compete in platforms where algorithms are designed to prioritize how often people share and endorse information, and with little oversight or regulation as to how they perform these functions and to what end. A recent op-ed by media scholar Zeynep Tufekci detailed how YouTube quickly promotes sensationalized and polarizing political content.
These trends make it difficult to consider how media literacy practices can meaningfully respond. While media literacy focused on deconstruction and interpretation alongside creation, action, and reflection, are valuable, they may not correct the current issues that contribute to this fake news ecosystem. We must consider new approaches to teaching and learning about media that focus intentionally on the civic: how we can use media to reform communities, to create meaningful human interactions, and to build sustainable pathways for positive social impact.
To this end, three core questions are guiding conversations about the role of media literacy as a response mechanism to an increasingly polarizing and partisan media ecosystem. I will respond to them here in the hopes of starting a dialogue focused on what we should prioritize for media literacy practices to be responsive, relevant and sustainable.
How should we prepare the next generation of responsible, media literate citizens?
Media literate citizens should envision themselves as agents of social change. Many times media literacy prioritizes skill attainment and individual responsibility over using media to reform, inspire and create conditions for more meaningful participation in the world. The next wave of media literate citizens will not only be savvy in their ability to critique and create media, but know how to leverage media technologies, designs and practices to build experiences where humans work together in support of a common good.
How do we better measure media literacy?
Part of the problem with media literacy’s ability to scale is that it’s difficult to measure. Current measures focus on skills, knowledge, and attitudes after a formal media literacy pedagogical experience. While these studies are valuable, they are only one side of the story. We need more evaluation, and documentation of media literacy practices that place people in communities, working to impact positive social change, and their use of media in this process. More evidence of such work, over time, can help reframe our point of measurement from skill attainment to impact in the real world.
Will digitization and new innovations help or hinder the fight against fake news?
Technology itself cannot help or hinder the current state of media and political expression. New media innovations often bring both new opportunities for connectivity and production alongside potential impacts to information norms and media flows. We should consider this not a fight against fake news, but rather, think about how the lack of regulation and oversight of our new large scale media companies enabled this environment, and in what ways we can correct against these harmful practices as we continue to produce new tools and technologies with even more potential for inclusive and vibrant communities.