Can we make media/news literacy universal? We’re going to try.

(UPDATE: Here are my initial thoughts from the meeting this piece references.)

A few days after the 2016 national election, viewing what I believe was (and remains) an emergency situation, I urged the major technology companies to make media and news literacy part of their missions. We’d just emerged from the most rancid campaign in my memory, marked in part by an avalanche of misinformation.

Social media platforms, especially Facebook, were getting a lot of heat — some of it deserved — for their role in making it easy for completely fabricated “news” reports to spread like a fast-moving pandemic. There were calls for the tech companies to remove the malicious hoaxes — what people called “fake news” — from their sites. (One appropriate response was to make it more difficult for hoaxers to profit from their deceit.)

I don’t want Facebook, or Google, or Twitter or any of these huge companies being arbiters of truth, as I wrote in November. The dangers in that struck me as obvious, given their enormous sway over public conversation and information search.

But they could help the public in big ways, I thought, if they’d help us — the audience for and users of information — to upgrade ourselves. Not long after, Facebook’s Áine Kerr, manager of journalism partnerships, asked my colleagues and me for some ideas what the company could do, and had some suggestions of her own. One result of those conversations, I’m glad to report, is a “News Literacy Working Group” this weekend at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

We’ve assembled a superb, cross-disciplinary group of people from around the U.S. and several other countries. They understand the emergency, and they’re coming to Phoenix to go deep on this question: How can we make media/news literacy, which now seems so vital, a core part of everyday life?

What we’re doing isn’t a “summit,” though the people joining us are some of the best we know in a number of fields — media literacy and its critically important subset, news literacy; journalism, technology, academia, NGOs, philanthropies, and more. Rather, it’s a working group of folks who all understand that this problem demands not just a redoubling the valuable work already being done, but also a batch of fresh, ambitious ideas on how to make news literacy scale.

This chart doesn’t start at zero; media and news literacy advocates have been working to help people for years. But in a world awash in misinformation and outright deception, we need to grow this field dramatically.

When people in technology talk about “scale” they mean using modern tools and techniques to extend the reach of a product or service with exponential growth. You’ve seen charts that look like a hockey stick, where the initial growth is modest but turns up in a dramatic way, almost becoming a vertical line over time. That’s what scale means, and one of my goals is to make media/news literacy do that — via schools, libraries and other community institutions; via media; and tech platforms themselves.

In recent weeks, the Cronkite School has been working closely with Facebook to put this meeting together. A key colleague in this has been Eric Newton, now head of innovation at the school, who helped kick-start many of the nation’s pioneering news literacy initiatives when he was head of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has pumped countless millions of dollars into improving public knowledge.

Facebook’s sponsorship of our meeting falls under its recently announced “Facebook Journalism Project,” a three-pronged initiative that includes “Training & Tools for Everyone,” specifically including a wish to promote news literacy. Áine Kerr and her Facebook colleagues have much of the heavy lifting to make this working group happen. Their professionalism has been evident at every step, and it’s been gratifying to work with them.

To answer a question that several people who know about the ASU-Facebook collaboration have already asked me: My longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s overwhelming dominance in the media world have not changed at all. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies.

But I gladly work with people with whom I disagree on some matters when we have common interests in other ways. I’m convinced that Facebook is serious about promoting media and news literacy — helping all of us upgrade ourselves to be active users of media and not just passive consumers.

We — all people who understand the need to make civics and critical thinking universal — have a lot of work ahead. I hope that this weekend will be one step in a long and vital journey.

(Cross-posted on my personal blog.)