Re-imagining the Literacies for a Time of Distrust

In the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, a renewed interest in media literacy has emerged, centered specifically around the phenomenon of “fake news.” While the term “fake news” is being increasingly contested, it has framed contemporary discussions around the proliferation of misinformation through social networks, and into mainstream media spaces. This proliferation, and the open critique of media by senior political leaders, all the way up to the President of the United States, has led to a vigorous debate about why citizens do not vet the credibility of information, demand “truth,” call out false information, and request more accountability by fellow citizens online.

This argument has been bolstered by a series of interesting and provocative contributions by many of the leading thinkers and practitioners in this space. Media scholar and director of Data + Society, danah boyd, in her well-traveled article “Did media literacy backfire?” questioned the effectiveness of normative media literacy models in responding to an era of “polarization, distrust, and self-segregation.” In response, leading media literacy scholar Renee Hobbs pushed back on the notion that media literacy has even fired in the first place, using the flurry of fake news to renew her call for a more widespread, rigorous and scalable approach to media education across K-12 schools.

I’ve talked to various media outlets (here and here) about the question of media literacy as a response to what many consider a crisis of media and truth. I’ve debated with my colleagues about this, and have been asked repeatedly to consider why so many citizens were not “media literate enough” to stem the rising tide of fake news.

Media literacy, in this sense, provides a tangible space for people to channel questions, anger, and make sense of why misinformation has proliferated online. It provides a neat frame for people to find a deficit space. It goes something like: If media literacy is about teaching people how to access, evaluate, analyze, and create media of all forms, then it necessarily supports the emergence of truth, fact and dialog in public life. This makes sense. Many organizations artfully promote their own core concepts (see NAMLE & UNESCO, to name just two), that connect the critique and creation of media with engaged citizenship.

I see the blame placed on media literacy as logical, and the defense of media literacy as articulate as well. Perhaps both sides have a point: on the one hand, media literacy hasn’t been implemented in enough formal or informal spaces of learning to be considered not working effectively. At the same time, media literacy, as currently conceived, perhaps does not speak to the current ways in which media consumption, sharing, and production are happening in a digital culture. These arguments, in some sense, cancel each other out.

In a forthcoming paper I composed on this topic, I invoke critical theorist Guy Debord to argue that the proliferation of citizen-drive spectacle is unique in its origination and perpetuation, and a direct result of an increasingly polarized and distrustful public spending an increasing amount of time in homophilous networks where contrarian views are few and far between. I apply the frame of “spreadable media” to explore how citizen-expression online initiated, sustained, and expanded the media spectacle that pervaded the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and use the cases of Pizzagate and Pepe the Frog’s appropriation by the alt-right to highlight how communities, who we may assume have sophisticated levels of media literacy, are creating, propagating and sustaining the type of “fake news” that many see as a mandate on an uninformed public. In the same paper, I interrogate the role of mainstream media in legitimating spectacle simply in their providing attention to the term.

I advance these ideas to ask perhaps a more relevant question about media literacy than whether or not it is a successful antidote to the current state of partisan media and homophilous networks online: what role should media literacy play in an increasingly partisan culture where media spectacle is spread and perpetuated by networked communities?

To answer this question, I argue for the need for the media literacy movement to respond directly to the emerging spreadable ecosystem for information, created and propagated by homophilous networks, lack of trust in gatekeepers, and what danah boyd calls a “return to tribalism” where “we’re undoing the social fabric of our country through polarization, distrust, and self-segregation. And whether we like it or not, our culture of doubt and critique, experience over expertise, and personal responsibility is pushing us further down this path” (boyd, 2017).

These considerations are meant to start dialog around “re-positioning” media literacy research, practice, and teaching directed at the critique and creation of media in support of a common good, and that can respond meaningfully in an era of spreadable spectacle.

I leave these here as conversation starters, and perhaps ways we can begin to articulate a new path forward for the media literacies in the age of distrust.

  1. Re-positioning media literacies for spreadable connectivity — — Normative approaches to critical inquiry that focus on a distanced critique of media messages is no longer sufficient in digital culture. Media literacy must focus on connecting humans, embracing differences, and finding a way to acknowledge but move past mainstream media as the point of entry for analysis.
  2. Re-positioning media literacies as mechanisms for caring — When literacies are framed around responsible consumption, they tend to focus on the tools necessary to deconstruct messages but not on the ways in which this information can facilitate caring for one another.[1] Media literacy would be well served by thinking more explicitly about how pedagogy and practice can be seen as relational and not individualistic, and focused on caring and not individual skill attainment.
  3. Re-positioning media literacies as facilitators of “everyday” engagement — Imagining media literacy as active engagement allows the process to matter as much as the outcome. Research conducted by one of this paper’s authors found that by focusing media literacy on critical skill attainment alone, young people were prone to be more cynical, less willing to engage in dialog, and less trustful of media and institutions in the first place. Media literacies that focus on participation in local issues can frame the critique and creation of messages as connected to one’s sense of place, belonging, and community.
  4. Re-positioning media literacies as intentionally civic — Lastly, media literacy as a movement has been constrained by a need to be a-political. Much has been made about the need to teach about media’s role in society, and specifically about potentially harmful messages. These low hanging fruits for media literacy, while relevant, perpetuate a frame of reference that sees problems as structural. Media literacy must focus on civic impact: the ways in which media can be used to impact, at realistic scale, the political, social, and cultural issues that define our democracy.

[1] Nel Noddings has written extensively about the role of caring about and caring for as an ethic that is relational, and not individualist, in its aim to connect and bring together. See Noddings, N. (2013). Caring: A relational approach to ethics & moral education. University of California Press. And Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people: A caring alternative to character education. New York: Teachers College Press.