Freedom to Choose: An Existential Crisis

A Response to boyd’s “What Hath We Wrought?”

by Renee Hobbs

Renowned thought leader danah boyd shared her existential crisis with the teachers, school leaders, educational technology professionals and entrepreneurs who attended the SXSWEDU conference in Austin, Texas last week.

Boyd’s work exploring the social media worlds of adolescents has enabled her to see the many ways in which people can get sucked “down the rabbit hole” as they encounter hate-filled communities filled with conspiracy theories, disinformation, hoaxes and propaganda. Sensitive to the needs of vulnerable youth through her work with adolescent online suicide crisis centers, boyd recognizes how media culture may amplify fears and promote alienation under the guise of social media communities and the provision of news, entertainment and advertising. As a parent of young children, boyd must naturally wonder about the future that her children will inhabit. I’m sure that everyone in her audience could relate to her description of the many reasonable fears we now have about the future of the information society in a culture permeated with hatred and violence.

Of course, I can relate with the anxieties she shared with her audience, having suffered my own existential crisis that led me to confront the dark forces that exist in our society and the choices people make that lead to despair and death. To be human is to stare into the face of darkness and wonder about why we’re here and where we are headed.

Indeed, we face a barrage of social, economic and political problems right now, including school shootings, police brutality, income inequality, rising levels of racism and anti-Semitism, a deeply flawed immigration policy, unequal access to health care, the rise of opiod addiction and deaths, climate change and environmental degradation, and now, deep concerns about the integrity of our elections. Platform capitalism has created new challenges to our faith in public communication in democratic societies. In the face of unrelenting hype about the marvels of digital technologies in advancing connected learning, boyd’s decision to use her public platform at a national conference to voice concerns about the direction of our society right now was a welcome novelty.

Blaming Media Literacy

Boyd did not direct her concerns to the institutional actors who are reshaping the public sphere in ways that increase people’s access to disinformation through platform capitalism. Boyd never once mentions a tech company or platform in her talk. As Benjamin Doxtdador points out, the disinformation that’s fueled by hate groups and spread by algorithms is an embedded feature of the platforms we use. These platforms are nontransparent and outside of democratic control.

Instead of mentioning the role of the platforms, boyd claims that media literacy is the problem because it causes people to “doubt what they see.” Her SXSWEDU talk repeats a distorted depiction of media literacy as she claims that questioning media has led to social and political destabilization.

We live in a world where people value experience and emotion over information. Asking critical questions about information can be a force for good or evil. Asking questions can be destabilizing and it can challenge status quo norms and values, and it’s sometimes quite painful to see cherished values come under question.

Given that boyd identified me by name in a talk which she explicitly described as a provocation, it seems reasonable to wonder why she feels compels to position media literacy as the problem here. Just when media literacy is getting some visibility and attention from within the philanthropic community, boyd uses it as a straw man to trivialize and knock down. What’s her motive?

Media literacy is sometimes misunderstood in part because of its transdisciplinary nature that includes a dialectic of empowerment and protection. Of course, media literacy is more than asking questions and deconstructing media messages. It also involves reflecting on the meaning-making process, creating messages, and taking action in the world. As a result, it’s always had a number of different distinct flavors, as the recent report by Monica Bulger and Patrick Davison have noted. I’ve often wondered about whether the many approaches that exist in the diverse and multifaceted media literacy community is a source of strength or weakness. Because media literacy includes vocal stakeholders with a wide range of positions and ideologies, we’ve tried to cultivate a big tent under the aegis of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), where people can come together for dialogue and discussion.

Truthfully, I’m sympathetic to boyd’s concerns about news literacy, which sometimes presents a dumbed-down version of a Media and Society undergraduate class to children and teens. I’ve been concerned about those who teach media literacy as a valorization of mainstream media or who present it as merely making simplistic distinctions between fact and opinion. The competencies of children and young people are not advanced when former journalists enter the classroom, tell war stories about their exploits, and wax eloquent about the power of verification and the First Amendment. These well-meaning efforts may romanticize the profession but they don’t provide learners with a solid understanding of how to develop critical autonomy as consumers. This form of learning may build trust in news media but may not help learners develop a sense of agency as citizens and public communicators. I think it’s important for young people to learn about the economics of news as an industry and as a political force without promoting either blind trust in mainstream news media or cultivating debilitating cynicism.

But boyd presents a wildly inaccurate view of information literacy when she claims that teachers tell students that Wikipedia is an inferior information resource or that CNN is better than FOX. Boyd’s views on this topic are seriously outdated. In particular, today’s school, public and academic librarians are leading the field in their deep appreciation for how authority is situational and contextual, and the collaborative work of librarians that resulted in the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education is reshaping pedagogy across the K-20 spectrum in highly productive and useful ways.

Sadly, boyd also neglected to address the dimensions of media literacy that were well-represented at the SXSWEDU community, with its focus on youth media and civic empowerment. Youth media programs give students the confidence and sense of social responsibility they need to be responsible citizens. Had boyd attended any of the SXSWEDU media literacy sessions, she would have seen plenty of evidence of a variety of educational programs, including PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, where students are engaged in journalistic inquiry, media production and student-centered learning that build critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, media literacy and communication skills. In helping learners construct knowledge, such programs prepare students for the job of active citizenship.

That’s why I also wondered why boyd did not acknowledge one of the most important features of media literacy education — its capacity to cultivate creative expression as a means to create transformative opportunities for personal, social and civic identity. When I stand beside the Florida Parkland students at their March 24 march on Washington, it will be because of my deep respect for how young people are using their powerful voices to take a stand against senseless gun policies that destroy people’s lives. It takes courage and practice to become a public communicator, and media literacy teachers help children and young people develop these competencies every day through their work in classrooms across the United States and around the world.

Responsive to Change

Media literacy education is a pedagogical approach that aims to be continually responsive to the ever-changing media, technology and cultural environment. A visit to the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference would enable boyd to recognize the amazing work of middle school and high school English teachers who explore media literacy through film analysis, analysis of social media, making media with a smartphone, digital storytelling, the study of memes, fandom, reality TV, celebrity culture and more. Media literacy competencies are embedded in the Common Core Standards and they promote academic achievement.

In an increasingly global society, it’s important to examine media literacy and contemporary propaganda from a cross-national perspective, which is why, with support from the European Commission and the Evens Foundation, we are bringing Mind Over Media: Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda to six European countries including Finland, Belgium, France, Croatia, Poland and Romania. In Sao Paolo, Brazil, I’m happy to report that the version of media literacy called edu-communication is alive and well in the public schools, where a minimum of 43,000 children get an opportunity to analyze and create media each year. We have a lot to learn from the global media literacy community.

As the media industry now relies on an attention economy dependent on views and clicks, it is important to tackle pedagogical strategies for addressing algorithm literacy, helping learners understand how the data they create by interacting with online platforms is used to shape the content of information and entertainment they receive.

How Do We Know What We Know?

Truthfully, it’s hard to tell right now whether (or not) the marketplace of ideas is broken. People don’t always choose information or entertainment that is in their best interest, that’s for sure. But with the rise of authoritarian governments all around the world, I’m still betting on the side of freedom of expression. I think that we’ll muddle through and figure out how to ensure that a robust public sphere enables people to consume and create media responsibly.

But because media literacy education is responsive to the particularities of learners and community needs, it may look different in Tulsa, Oklahoma than in Brookline, Massachusetts. Whether students are analyzing and creating hip-hop, examining propaganda, creating public service announcements, composing Scratch animation, or studying the patterns of representation in Disney films, they’re engaged in a learning process that creates opportunities for dialogue and reflection on the choices we make as creators and consumers.

Both individual and collective action can make a difference here. Children and young people have full access to the wide range of truth and beauty that’s out there for the taking and it’s all about the choices they make. We choose whether to spread hate or love by the messages we compose and share. That’s a lesson that adults need to learn, too.

Danah boyd is not the first person to point out the limitations of media literacy. George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, once told me that media literacy was impossible. As a member of the Hungarian resistance and founder of the Cultural Environment Movement, he knew a lot about impossible causes.

To survive an existential crisis, we must come to realize that we define our own lives through the choices we make. Any decision we make (whether through action or inaction) is, in itself, a choice. As Sartre puts it, humankind is “condemned” to freedom.

Educators everywhere, because they work with children and teens, bring a deep sense of optimism and hope for the future, despite the many challenges of the work. Being optimistic about the future of education — and the future of our society and our democracy– is a choice we make that enables us to press on against great odds.

Renee Hobbs is professor of communication studies and Director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. Twitter: @reneehobbs