What is media Literacy?
Media literacy is understanding, analysing, and creating media messages. It is an evolving skill set that teachers and students need to understand in greater detail as how we consume and create media is constantly moving and becoming more complex to decipher.
Becoming media literate and teaching media literacy to students involves understanding how media messages are constructed and the techniques used to convey information and ideas.
Most importantly, it includes the ability to evaluate the credibility and reliability of media sources, how to recognize bias and disinformation and understand the impact media can have on individuals and society.
We have never lived in an era where it has been so easy to create and consume media and share it with the world; as such, we should be more enlightened about the purpose and intent of the messages being presented to us. Becoming media literate has never been more important as the validity and credibility of news, facts and opinions are more challenging to determine.
Students who are media literate are better equipped to critically analyze the information they receive and make informed decisions about what they believe and how they engage with media.
As teachers, it is crucial to integrate media literacy into all curriculum areas so students understand media reaches and influences us in many ways.
What skills are required to become media literate?
Becoming media literate is a process of critical thinking, healthy scepticism and understanding the factors that drive and influence the media itself. For this to occur, we have broken down these broad skills into individual components students and teachers need to understand at a deeper level.
- How to analyse media messages: This involves teaching students the techniques used to inform, entertain and persuade an audience and understand the messages being conveyed to them.
- How to evaluate a source: When students can determine the credibility and reliability of media sources, they are going to make far wiser evaluations of the message and purpose of the content they are consuming.
- Understanding the impact of the media: What influence does the media have upon individuals, groups, and society? Teaching students why we should embrace freedom of speech and the search for truth above all else is essential. When students understand the chaos of controlled and corrupt media, they will approach it with a healthy level of scepticism and respect.
- Understanding how media is produced: By understanding the complexity and simplicity of producing various forms of media and sharing them with an audience, students can better determine if the media message they are consuming has been created by an agenda-driven machine or an expert in the field on a given topic.
- Knowing the difference between fact and opinion: It may seem simplistic and obvious, but when students can quickly identify if a statement is an absolute verified fact that has weight and credibility versus an opinion, it completely changes how that message is received. If students cannot separate these two areas, we educators have significantly failed them.
- Recognizing media manipulation: As terrible as it may seem, there are tens of thousands of people devoting their lives to producing propaganda, advertising, or disinformation for profit, persuasion and power every single day. Make it clear to all students that not all media should be trusted and that constant disinformation will be presented to them throughout their lives.
- Identifying and Understanding Bias: When students understand that all media has a purpose for being created and may frequently contain some degree of bias, they will look beyond simply what they are being told and ask why this message is being shared.
- Digital Literacy Skills and Media Creation: Navigating the media requires a basic understanding of technology and digital media. Providing students with the skills to effectively use technology and digital media to access, analyze, and create media messages moves them from consumers to creators with an effective and ethical understanding of the impact that their media messages can have.
WE ARE LIVING IN THE GREATEST “DISINFORMATION ERA” IN HISTORY
Never before has it been so easy for someone, anyone, to create a message and share it with hundreds of millions of people, and even more concerning is that it has never been easier for governments to control that flow of information within their borders so that they control the narrative on every news story, and to the bend and erase history at will. We are seeing this in action today in countries such as North Korea, China and Russia.
Disinformation is the spread of false or misleading information, often intending to control public opinion or promote a specific agenda. This problem has become increasingly prevalent in recent years and has driven a sharp rise in wild conspiracy theories, scams and radicalization. It is essential that students are taught to navigate this complex digital landscape and how to identify credible sources of information.
The information era of the early 2000s has doubled down on its capacity to share and consume information through digital technology and has taken an unfortunate turn in recent years to create an information superhighway leading to a complex system of facts, opinions, bias, hatred and outright lies that are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate especially for those who have grown up knowing nothing else but consuming their news through YouTube, Social media and the weight of opinion from social influencers outranks that of experts and proven research.
How did we get here?
The answer to that question is complex, but three critical turning points have driven us to the point at which we find ourselves.
1: The ease of content creation: This point has been covered well enough, but when anyone with the literacy skills of a child can use tools such as artificial intelligence to write a flawless 2000-word article or create a 10-minute video explaining in the style of a professional news outlet and share it with millions of people via social media via paid promotion for well under $100 this marks a clear turning point in the way we consume and create media.
To create and deliver content at this level of quality and scale only a decade earlier would have cost thousands of dollars and required far more checks and balances.
2: Algorithms determining what we consume: In the same way in which Spotify and Netflix determine what shows and music we should listen to based upon what we like, and thumbs down and so on, social media drives our consumption of news and information in the same way.
The primary intent of social media is to keep users on the platform for as long as possible regardless of what we are doing; watching videos, liking photos or sharing posts, it doesn’t matter so long as our eyeballs remain on their platform. This allows social media outlets such as Facebook, TikTok and Instagram to sell advertising and generate billions of dollars of revenue each month.
So just as you might prefer Beiber over Beethoven on your music playlists, computer-driven algorithms will both increase music that has more in common with your tastes and then removes those that do not. Undeniably, these algorithms are both practical and helpful in ensuring your wants and needs are met more often than not.
But wait; what if those algorithms effectively removed some of the most fantastic music we have never heard? Music that might provide us with an insight into new cultural areas put us in a completely different headspace or open our eyes to how other generations of music shaped the music we listen to today. What a shallow pool of musical tastes we would quickly swim in as all of our playlists blend into the same 100 songs we listen to all the time. Sound familiar?
So if we transfer that process of algorithms feeding us our musical tastes into how social media feeds us news and events, it is not hard to see how our biases, likes and dislikes can be quickly targeted and capitalized upon in the same way.
The more significant problem here is that if you are interested in news articles revolving around science and technology, for example, not only will you find your news feed packed with these stories exclusively with news stories of this nature, but other news events will be removed.
3: Welcome to the Algorithmic “Rabbit Hole”
The third and final act explaining how we got here is the most interesting and we can use it as a metaphor found in the story Alice in Wonderland where she enters the rabbit hole and is transported to a surreal state of being that is both disturbing and delightful.
The “YouTube” rabbit hole is a phenomenon that demonstrates this process most effectively; how we start inncoently viewing videos on a specific topic, such as “NBA highlights from the 90s”, that within 10 – 12 videos will evolve into a new stream of “recommended content” exposing “NBA Scandals”, that then leads to “Celebrity Conspiracy theories” to videos focussed on (Insert topic here) full of foul language, wild opinions, conspiracies and flat out lies.
So what is happening here, and why?
If we remember that the sole focus is to keep you on the platform so that advertising can be sold, the algorithm also knows that you will quickly tire of the same content no matter what it is; and as such, it needs to provide alternate content that is in a similar vein that might also be more contentious and packed full of user feedback and comments that will create a higher level of engagement.
Effectively the algorithm needs to keep upping the “sugar, or dosage”, leading creators to create more contentious and hyperbolic even radicalized content as the race for your attention span continues to evolve. All the while, that balanced understanding of any topic is pushed to the side and eventually completely removed in favour of your new and more extreme and niche areas of interest. And this is not a healthy place for anyone to exist, especially those who are blind to the process that led them here.
This leads creators to create more wild and contentious content to draw an audience, and the cycle is repeated.
Conscious, and state controlled disinformation
Up until this point we have been referring to companies using technologies to keep users engaged and persuade them to consume particular streams of information for financial gain but it did not take long for authoritarian countries use this same technology to generate propaganda, erase history and sway public opinion both in their own borders and those of their ideoligical rivals.
The big difference here is we are moving at scale from a backyard operation of disinformation to an environment in which a state sponsored projects where money, time and resources are unlimited and the capacity to create chaos on a global scale greatly increases. Effectively enabling the process weaponising disinformation.
Why bother trying to invade your enemy when you can far more easily create chaos and revolution amongst their own citizens in relative obscurity?
Ironically, it is the countries who value a free and open media who are at greatest risk of falling victim to disinformation attacks as there is little capacity to filter, censor and control the flow of information within social media as opposed to autocratic nations like Russia and China who have removed the techncial pathways and human rights of free press and free speech within their own borders.