We need to drastically improve our digital and media literacy levels

In a recent workshop I held here in Ottawa, the topic of digital and media literacy came up on a few occasions. I wanted to examine this a bit further and share some quick thoughts.

Let’s start with some definitions courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Digital Literacy is the knowledge, skills, and behaviors used in a broad range of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs, all of which are seen as network rather than computing devices.
  • Media Literacy is a repertoire of competencies that enable people to analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres, and formats.

If the global events of the last year have reinforced anything in my mind, it’s that digitally literate internet users tend have low levels of media literacy and media literate internet users tend to have low levels of digital literacy. I would love to see an evolution occur where media literacy includes digital literacy and vice-versa, as I think they are inseparable in this day in age.

First of all, the sheer amount of information circulating in my social streams that is factually wrong (or proven to be fake altogether), but has been liked, shared or commented on by people I know and respect is staggering. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because they are any less intelligent or have malicious intentions. It has more to do with impulsive reactions and a touch of laziness (i.e. not doing a quick fact check or performing a simple google search).

Media literacy now entails cognizing the fact that the “researching” that once happened behind the scenes, now occurs in a public space (hence the “wide variety of media modes” in the definition). The “thinking out loud” is often misunderstood and rapidly taken out of context . Many internet users have not caught up with this change and thus share information as if it were verified and factual the second something is trending. This only perpetuates the problem and often gets professional media organizations, which play in the same sandbox, to report that the item is trending, even if they have not verified whether or not it is legitimate in the first place. The news then becomes the fact that it is trending as opposed to the content itself. E.g. BBC reporting on the Australian man unable to get a Passport due to his offensive name (this story was proven to be a fake)

The other issue tying into this, is the emotional reactions people have (and act upon) to images and video, now that the social web has shifted into high gear with visual content (i.e. Instagram, 360 video, Vine, FB Auto-Play, Periscope). The tragic photo of the drowned Syrian boy is a prime example. Photos have always been powerful in capturing global attention, swaying public opinion, and altering the course of political direction, hence why photo journalism exists. The difference now however, is the complete lack of context and the unconditioned state of mind when viewing this kind of content. Take this fictional scenario for example, which is not too unrealistic based on my observations.

  • Someone is looking at their 5-year old nephew’s Halloween costume photos on their Facebook stream. Suddenly a photo of a drowned Syrian boy photo shows up in their stream with a powerful heading aimed at raising awareness. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL SHARE
  • Same person is updating their LinkedIn profile a day later and notices a petition status update calling for attention to the Syrian refugees and the horrible handling of the migrant crisis in general by European nations. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL SIGNING OF PETITION
  • Back on Facebook, they are reading a review someone shared on the latest Galaxy S6 smartphone when a post appears calling on politicians to expedite refugee acceptance. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL LIKE
  • Texting (or “WhatsApping”) with friends on the phone one night, they get a ping from their BBC news app about the live shooter situation in Paris. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL SHARE
  • Famous video clip showing people running away from the Bataclan Theater starts circulating on social channels, as do various photos. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL SHARE
  • The words “islamic” and “terrorist” start circulating on Twitter regarding the Paris Attacks. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL COMMENT
  • Posts start showing up mentioning terrorists being linked to Islamic State, Islamic State linked to Islam, Islam linked to refugees, refugees linked to potential terror threat. Photos included in the headers are often ISIS be-headings. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL SHARE
  • A few days later they are reading some online news items regarding the importance of security and halting or slowing down the process of bringing in refugees to protect us from potential terrorism. Photos included are Paris attackers. Immediate Action: EMOTIONAL SHARE

And thus they do a complete 180, based primarily on passive media consumption and instinctive/emotional reactions as news is primarily consumed in snippets and visuals. This has always happened, however never has flip-flopping occurred on such a massive public scale, and so quickly. You see, in the past, these public micro expressions of opinion (likes, shares ,re-tweets and comments) based on emotional on-the-spot reactions were never captured beyond close social circles (in the form of chatter). Now they are. The time investment is far lower than writing a letter to the editor or organizing a protest.

And while there definitely is merit in raising attention surrounding various issues, my argument is that more critical thinking (media literacy) on digital channels (digital literacy) needs to be occurring before posting these micro-expressions as they can have very real macro effects on public sentiment. An extra minute of analysis (i.e stopping and thinking) could have a profound effect on the perceived macro-level sentiment towards any given issue and subsequently the corresponding government reaction.

My quick advice:

  1. When coming across powerful content along with a corresponding opinion, try to overcome the need to share it immediately unless you would consider yourself well versed in that topic.
  2. When a piece of content is hard to believe, Google it first before sharing. Add the word “fake” in your search query.
  3. Before signing a petition, spend at least 1 minute doing some devil’s advocate research.

End of rant.

For the record, I wholeheartedly welcome all refugees seeking asylum here in Canada. I used that as an example of how quickly compassion can turn to hate.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Mike Kujawski’s story.