Media literacy – a citizen’s duty

25.01.2019Javno

Media literacy recently got into the news as pundits from all over the world blamed our current fast and furious social media diet for the result of the American presidential elections. The narrative focused on the usage of social media, phones and other digital technologies and the lack of proper integration into the world of algorithms.

The purposed solution? Digital literacy trainings which will improve digital skills and knowledge of the general user, show the user the right way to use digital tools and keep him away from any and every danger that lurks in the digital deep waters.

This was not the first time knowledge was used as a solution to the uncontrollable technology. The proposed solutions usually ignore the background of threats, the background of technology usage habits and focus on a clear and simple do’s and don’ts list that try and steer the user in the right direction.

Digital literacy: Tool makers unite!

An attentive reader surely noticed that the introduction into this article only mentioned media literacy once and then continued to talk about digital literacy, possibly making an assumption that digital and media literacy are two of the same thing. They are not.

The confusion stems from the techno deterministic approach to problem solving in the digital age where we are replacing knowledge-based solutions with tool-based solution. An entire industry of »fake news busting algorithms« is stemming from the fact that the digital literacy is misplacing education for skill learning.

The media, goes the tale, is nothing more than a mathematical equation which can easily be solved if you enter all the variables into the machine and press SOLVE. You do not need a deeper understanding of the importance of media in a democratic society, their fourth estate function, their function of a public watchdog. All you need to do is follow this flowchart of twelve easy steps and you will become a mass media power user who will get all the benefits and none of the pains from it.

It is true – as our society is becoming more and more digitized and more and more social functions are supported by a digital mechanical component (even the most basic social function of meeting or communicating now involve at least one digital techno butler) the emphasis on understanding and decoding technology becomes greater.

The digital industry needs blue-collar digital workers that will shuffle the data, stir the code and keep the fire going and they found a perfect ally in the digital literacy push which is now being used prevalently as a educational advertising about the wonders of technology. Let somebody else worry about the big picture.

Looking back the media literacy was not even about media. It was about the deeper understanding of the social-political landscape of a modern democracy where the mass media represents one of the key elements of a functional democracy.

It was about the role of the informed citizen which is using the mass media to perform a vital function of the checks and balances. It was about the citizen ability to participate in the decision-making process, to make rational and informed political decision.

This meaning got somewhat lost in time with the development of digital society which developed instant gratification to every social problem known to mankind.

The golden age from the beginning of 21st century which hailed digital democracy as the next big thing, which fronted the digital technologies as a solution to voter’s apathy, which sought to replace the active citizenship with active digital users who click, share, like and perform other functions within the walled gardens of Silicon Valley blurred the line between society and ever-increasingly privatized digital environment where the user is becoming just another product.

Media literacy: A citizen’s duty

So, what exactly is media literacy? The definition used by the Centre of Media literacy defines it as a »a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyse, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy« (Center for Media Literacy, 2018). Note the emphasis on the connection between democracy and media.

Looking across the Slovenian media literacy landscape, we can quickly see the political aspect of media literacy usually does not make the cut when describing it. Here is a definition from a Slovene media literacy project run by the Faculty of media studies: »Media literacy is described as a skill, knowledge and understanding that allows the users to use the media safely and effectively (47th article of AVMS). Media literate people are informed and as such make the decisions« (Medijska pismenost, 2018).

Consider an article about the media literacy from the pen of one of the leading researchers on the matter. »In today’s information society the teachers and the students have to gain the knowledge of basic literacy together with media literacy. If schools want to prepare the students for the problems and challenges of today’s informational society adequately, the educational system needs to expand the concept of literacy and develop a new subject.« (Erjavec, 2010, p. 158)

Another self-defined media literacy project in Slovenia equates media literacy with fake news spotting, saying »Spotting fake news is an important part of media literacy« (Delo, 2018). Despite the fact that the project states that fake news analysis is just a part of media literacy we never get the definition of other parts of media literacy, reinforcing the perception that media literacy starts and ends with decoding of media lies.

The reason lies in the deeply-seeded misunderstanding of mass media role in Slovene society and disconnect between the citizens, media and political arena. Instead of emphasising the importance of informed decision-making process in a democratic society, the majority of modern media literacy programs in Slovenia are focusing on digital privacy, digital security and other aspects of before-mentioned digital literacy, almost completely ignoring the political aspect of mass media and the role of critical citizen.

Looking at the Balkan emerging democracies (Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia) you can clearly see the role media literacy plays as a “democracy integrator” in societies which are transitioning to a more or less democratic-liberal systems where the emphasis is on the media literacy being a tool for a better democratic decision making with explicit mention of elections and other political decision-making processes. Judging from the descriptions in the Balkans, media literacy leads to a more informed and responsible citizen.

This political aspect of media literacy gets lost in translation as you observe Slovenia which already more or less successfully integrated parliamentary system of democracy and where the media literacy seems to be more or less interpreted as a tool-making skill with the rationale behind it being obscured by fake news recognition and improving the knowledge of rudimentary digital skills like surfing the web and using mobile phones. Judging from their descriptions, in Slovenia media literacy leads to users who know advanced functions of word processors.

Rule of the idiōtēs

The reason for an almost complete disconnect between the perception of a citizen as a political animal and the role of media literacy in that regard can probably be connected to the general common perception of the apolitical citizen – what the ancient Greeks called »idiōtēs«. The term was not used in a derogatory manner (Pressenza, 2018) but was used to label citizens which mind their own business and do not participate in the public affairs.

Similar to our digital-first society where knowledge is put on the pedestal but the usage of that same knowledge in the socio-political arena is frowned upon, we can see the media literacy is perceived as a tool that can be used for a more comfortable and stress-free living but at the same time has no correlation with the role of an active citizen.

This is particularly dangerous when one takes into the account the proverbial tips and trick to achieve better media literacy through fake news spotting. The chart from 2016 by the international federation of library associations (IFLA, 2018) by now reproduced many times and translated in many languages continues to reproduce the techno deterministic myth of fake news decoding, equating media literacy with one of many digital skills one can learn by watching a Youtube tutorial video.

The IFLA chart purposes that the main problem of fake news production, dissemination and consumption can be solved by the simple process of user habit changing. The user should, according to the chart, make note of the media sources, compare different media sources on the same matter, check for author references, check its own biases and ask the experts when consuming the mass media. These recommendations look good on paper but the second you try to implement them in real live, you realise that they are literally impossible to use.

For example – checking the media source only helps you if you are dealing with obscure, semi-anonymous online forums that are sometimes used for information dissemination. If for example a respectable media establishment in your own country changes leadership or is influenced by political actors and that knowledge does not reach the audience, checking the source will not do you any good.

Same goes with checking the number of media sources reporting on the same matter – nowadays the universe of propaganda media outlets has spread, creating their own media universes which does not help you if you want to spot a lie. Checking for additional media sources will only reveal that the same lie has been published on many media outlets.

Finally, checking for your own biases sounds like the user has to check if the car has enough oil before turning on the engine. And even if you were able to do that, what is the purpose of that newly obtained knowledge? If the reader is biased towards the promotion of human rights, should he ignore the reports of human rights violations or read them even more voraciously?

This chart was sadly the basis of many media literacy trainings which targeted young digital users who have no previous knowledge of the role of mass media in a democratic society, do not understand the sociological background of our current techno deterministic digital society and are introduced to the problem of an active citizen without the crucial component – political role of an individual.

In the end we can see the problem of putting the cart before the horse solutions that promote the techno deterministic approach, ignore the wider importance of media literate citizen and shy away from connecting the mass media to the political aspect of living in a functional democracy.

Media literacy training: A new proposal

Instead of tackling the consequences of our digital-first lives we should focus on the causal forces that propel it and develop a media literacy training that will encompass the technology but also the sociological and political aspect of the problem.

The main focus of a media literacy training should be the (re)integration of an individual in the socio-political arena with the emphasis on understanding the inner-workings of media industry and their digital offspring, the connection between the active citizenship and responsible media consumption and the history of media industry.

The media literacy training should focus more on building an interdisciplinary understanding of the role of the media and less on the ways an individual should think and feel about the media. This only creates a perception that the individual is the one and only responsible for the entire process of media (self)regulation which is reality is far from truth.

Furthermore, the perception of personal responsibility without any systemic assistance as the only way of influencing or participating in a democratic society negates and further deconstructs the role of institutions that we have in place for exact that reason. 

The interdisciplinary approach matters as it includes the socio-psychological aspect of the mass media production and mass media consumption. The currently popular techno deterministic approach ignores both of these procedures and gives way to the promotion of false gods development – new technologies, new algorithms, new tools that will replace our critical and cognitive abilities. Only with the interdisciplinary approach we can demonstrate the vital socio-political function of the mass media in our society, our role as a consuming citizen and the interconnected network of advertisers and media producers.

The challenges of multidisciplinary approach are looming. You need trainers equipped with a specific skill set and knowledge that spans from informational technologies to sociology and communication studies. You need school programs allowing you to perform the same curriculum across a range of school subjects and thus highlight the same problem from various angles. You need approvals. You need the will to coordinate. To innovate.

The payoff of successful innovation is great. It offers a complete shift in paradigm where you can finally inform and interpret at the same time, offering a broader and deeper understanding of today’s social challenges.

Take the proverbial oil of the information age – our personal data. Learning about personal data just from a technocratic perspective will not give the student enough knowledge to comprehend the challenges and purposed solution to the conundrum of private and public spaces. At the same time learning about personal data solely from a sociological perspective will not be enough to understand the core mechanic of data gathering and processing which are two purely technical procedures.

Only with a combination of tools demystification done via informational technologies and a broader social explanation of the usability of said tools will we obtain enough knowledge to participate in a political debate about our society, our norms and development trends. Only with a combination of understanding the tools and their masters will be ready to participate in a political debate about this challenge and accept responsible decisions which will reflect in our daily lives.

Sources and literature

  1. Center for Media Literacy : Media Literacy: A Definition and More [Accessed 2019-01-12]. Accessible at https://www.medialit.org/media-literacy-definition-and-more
  2. Medijska pismenost : Kaj je medijska pismenost [Accessed 2019-01-12]. Accessible at http://pismenost.si/kaj-je-mp/
  3. Erjavec, Karmen (2010). Medijska pismenost osnovnošolk in osnovnošolcev v informacijski družbi. Sodobna pedagogika, letnik 61 = 127, številka 1, str. 156-191. URN:NBN:SI:DOC-S1BNJEUU from http://www.dlib.si
  4. Delo : Čas, ko je vsak dan prvi april [Accessed 2019-01-12]. Accessible at https://www.delo.si/prosti-cas/potovanja/cas-ko-je-vsak-dan-prvi-april.html
  5. Pressenza : “Idiotes” in Ancient Greece and today. The Colombia debacle [Accessed 2019-01-12]. Accessible at https://www.pressenza.com/2016/10/idiotes-ancient-greece-today-colombia-debacle/
  6. IFLA : How To Spot Fake News [Accessed 2019-01-12]. Accessible at https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174