Media Literacy’s Pivotal Role in a Disinformation Society

Special Focus : Is Media Literacy a Prerequisite in the Digital Age?
Life Skills March 26, 2018

These are interesting times for media literacy scholars and practitioners. The media landscape has been shaken up by growing concerns about online disinformation and propaganda. After the term ‘fake news’ was catapulted to the forefront during the 2016 US presidential election campaigns, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel has made it a policy priority for 2018. A High Level Expert Group convened by the EC has just launched a report on a Multi-dimensional Approach to Disinformation, citing the need to promote media literacy to “help users navigate the digital media environment”. The recognition that media literacy has become crucial in contemporary society is growing. We argue that the media literacy community should now be watchful that what it stands for isn’t narrowed down to fact-checking skills.

First, let’s have a closer look at fake news. While it has been a fashionable term for a while, its key characteristics fit within a tradition of misleading information and propaganda with a longer history than the concept itself. Moreover, fake news is not only used to point out disinformation, but also to dismiss media with diverging political views, with the purpose of discrediting and creating mistrust in news media. This has made the use of the term problematic, and many experts prefer to refer to disinformation. A recent Council of Europe report talks of the information disorder, and defines disinformation as “false with the intent to harm”; indeed, a defining factor is that it is “deliberately false or misleading”
Media literacy advocates have long argued for the need to foster skills that enable citizens to become thoughtful consumers as well as producers of information. Being able to identify disinformation is important, but media literacy goes far beyond this. In our view, the most impactful media literacy approaches not only care about sensible use, consumption and understanding, but also about active creation, communication and media production. Media literacy is an important remedy to tackle pressing societal issues of disinformation, but it should not be confined to this purpose. Calling for strengthening media literacy only in light of the fake news hype doesn’t do justice to the width and depth of existing media literacy initiatives, nor to the community that has been developing them for years, sometimes even decades. 
The media literacy community – practitioners, scholars and policy makers – would be right to point out that a lot more is at stake than can be captured by focusing on disinformation. Now that the call to strengthen media literacy has been gaining momentum in light of these developments, the time has come to highlight the crucial role of media literacy in fostering critical citizenship. This point of view seems to be gaining policy traction, but the budgets for media literacy research and initiatives haven’t always followed the rhetoric. The time is ripe for comprehensive funding strategies for media literacy in its broad sense.
In this age of online and social media, where disinformation can spread fast and wide, the importance of media literacy can hardly be overstated. Moreover, platforms and their algorithms can reinforce the repeated exposure to misleading information; they all too rarely challenge their users to consider opposing views. The stakes are high: quality of information and debate are vital values in a true democracy – it is no coincidence that the fourth estate is often one of the first under pressure in regimes with growing autocratic tendencies. Well-informed citizenship can only exist in an environment where quality journalism is supported and protected, and citizens’ critical skills are fostered – not only those to discern fact from fiction, but also those that help citizens exercise their freedom of speech in a variety of ways. 
We mustn’t forget that digital and social media can offer citizens many opportunities to create, share and publish content related to issues close to their hearts. Media literacy is about this positive side of the coin as well. By fostering a wide range of media literacy skills, potential can be unlocked and creativity can be stimulated. The digital media landscape offers a fascinating mix of opportunities and threats, and media literacy is of paramount importance in order to help citizens navigate this landscape. We should ensure we do not allow media literacy to be narrowed down to an instrumental fact-checking approach, even in times where fake news is often in the news.