UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

Op-Ed: Promoting Truth Begins with Media Literacy Education

By Charmine Osore, UNA-NCA Senior Research Assistant

On January 20th, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on the same steps where domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol just two weeks prior. News reports could not help but highlight the proximity of these events: one a challenge to our democracy and the other a symbolic recommitment to Constitutional values. A new president entered the White House with the haunting reminder that 34% of voters still believe Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. His supporters continue to cite baseless theories of widespread voter fraud fueled by prominent members of Congress as “evidence” of Biden’s illegitimate authority.

The insurrection rekindled an important conversation on the epidemic of disinformation and misinformation on social media, particularly with the popularization of conspiracy theories like QAnon. Much of the burden lies on media companies to regulate their platforms and prevent the spread of potentially dangerous lies, with Twitter and Facebook finally beginning to take the necessary steps after years of inaction. With the spotlight on tech companies, the role of the citizen has largely been ignored. The reality is that many Americans lack the skills to adequately navigate the sea of misinformation on the Internet. Bad actors take advantage of this fact, managing to disguise incredulous claims as facts. Governments must begin to prioritize media literacy education if we are to undo the politicization of truth.

What is Media Literacy?

Media literacy generally refers to an individual’s ability to understand and critically engage with media for the purposes of receiving information and participating in dialogue. In other words, it allows us to identify when we are engaging with misinformation. Contemporary media is almost impossible to escape, as we are confronted by millions of voices through TV, print media, and the Internet. These platforms affect our lives in ways that we may not realize; beyond shaping our political opinions, media exposure alters our perception of reality. Younger people who were born into a world of technological advancements experience these effects at an even higher rate.

An initial assessment of our world might lead us to conclude that the system of modern media is out of our control. However, individuals have some agency when it comes to redirecting dangerous trends. Americans must learn how to interact with different platforms in an environment so saturated with content. While distinguishing truth from fact is a valuable part of media engagement, literacy is equally about how media interacts with politics, culture, and other institutions. Understanding these relationships is a critical yet often overlooked responsibility in democratic societies.

Media and Democracy

For the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), media literacy has been a topic of global importance for decades. UNESCO relaunched their Media and Information Literacy Alliance (MIL), a program working to promote media literacy through global partnerships, in June 2020. As a part of its policy recommendations, the MIL advocates for countries to implement comprehensive media literacy programs at the national and regional level. The benefits of such programs are far reaching — citizens are able to better navigate the Information Age, the contemporary era in which data and information dictate our lived experience. More informed and empowered people contribute to stronger democracies. In the US this would mean decreased polarization as harmful and false narratives are more frequently denounced. Additionally, widely accessible programs address the “participation gap” in some countries where underrepresented groups have fewer opportunities for self expression. Women often face substantial barriers to political representation. Media education encourages equity by creating a dialogue where all voices are respected and stereotypes are challenged. Equipping individuals with the tools to research and communicate via various media channels means people can advocate their interests.

A reliable media infrastructure motivates beneficial cultural exchanges that contribute to a more connected global community. The unrestricted spread of information across the world can support innovation, contributing to economic growth and scientific development. Digital platforms in particular can become collaborative spaces where the public can mobilize data for problem solving. Initiatives that require a global effort like climate change will depend on a more informed society. When truth is protected and valued by all, opportunities for advancement increase. Of course, this level of progress can only be achieved with a dedicated approach to media education. True media literacy requires a coordinated effort among different actors within society: citizens, governments, independent organizations and of course the media.

Global Media Literacy

With few countries implementing the MIL’s policy recommendations, Finland has emerged as a world leader in media literacy education. Mediakasvatus is a Finnish term that describes the various forms of media literacy training found throughout the country. The effort is successful in part because of government support for organizations like the Finnish Society on Media Education, which researches and develops media literacy resources. Beginning as early as daycare, students participate in lessons on how to become informed digital citizens. Schools take a “cross curricular approach” to media education meaning skills are taught across various subjects and mediums.

Young people learn all about the media industry, including how to communicate using various technologies, the ethics of communication, how to be critical of media, and the factors that influence the operation of media. What’s more is that Finland provides resources for media literacy outside of schools in order to reach the entire population. Finland’s integrated approach pays off — a 2019 report indicated that among European countries, Finland is “best equipped to withstand the impact of fake news.” When media literacy becomes a priority, countries are able to mitigate the spread of misinformation all while creating opportunities for greater participation.

Local Efforts

Here in the DMV, there are no comprehensive media literacy campaigns. Previous legislative initiatives have been unsuccessful, but reveal a budding interest in media education. The Digital Literacy Council Establishment Act of 2017 in D.C. aimed to establish an advisory council that would work with Mayor Bowser to improve digital literacy among D.C. residents. Similar to governmental groups in Finland, the Council would be exclusively dedicated to the strategic planning of educational media programs. No action has been taken on the bill since a public hearing in July 2017.

In Virginia, a similar proposal was introduced in 2019. House Bill 1978 would have formed the Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Advisory Council, a 12 member body focused on developing “digital citizenship, Internet safety, and media literacy” programs for K-12 students. Unfortunately, the bill never received a full House vote. Despite this shortfall, both bills represent the beginning of a media literacy infrastructure. Governments in collaboration with independent organizations like Media Literacy Now must reconsider these efforts.

Pathways Forward

There are steps citizens can take in their own lives to educate themselves and share their knowledge with others. Jiore Craig, Vice President of GQR and an expert on media engagement, proposes a new approach to fake news intervention, particularly on social media. Craig explains that disinformation is meant to be provocative. Oftentimes our efforts to dispel falsehoods actually help to promote them. When we simply label something as “wrong” to our followers, we are spreading the lie even further, which is exactly what bad actors want.

Instead, Craig urges social media users to abide by the 5:1 ratio: for every false piece of information encountered, share five truths with people who are particularly susceptible to trusting fake news. This strategy of “leading with truth” ensures that harmful lies are not given further attention and exposes others to credible sources. Individual action can be as powerful as legislation in this case. Media as a form of communication relies on personal relationships and networks which can be mobilized to encourage meaningful change.

Our power to influence others only works if we recognize our own faults. Online behavior that feels natural can contribute to Internet echo chambers where false beliefs are validated among people with similar political beliefs. In the rush to reshare a post or to express an opinion, we often fail to verify if the source is credible. The best way to prevent this error is to “slow down,” according to Craig. Pay attention to any stories that trigger strong emotional reactions or appear overly sensational. One of Twitter’s newest features encourages source verification by suggesting users read an article before retweeting the post. Taking the time to explore where the information comes encourages a critical engagement with the material we encounter.

Fake news is certainly not a new phenomenon, but this past election cycle proves just how quickly mis/disinformation can threaten our institutions — and our safety. However, the damage is not permanent. The new administration, as a victim of fake news itself, has the opportunity to champion media literacy education and advocacy on a national scale. A failure to equip the public with the necessary tools for media communication will only leave an even greater strain on our democracy.

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UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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