Digital Media and Information Literacy: A Response to Information Disorder

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Introduction: Identifying the Problem

In an age of social media platforms, data-driven capitalism, and online disinformation that undermine our trust in facts, norms, and society, the damage inflicted by online disinformation, conspiracy theories, and micro-targeted political propaganda appears to be expanding exponentially due to a lack of societal democratic resilience. The dramatic 2020 US elections and President Trump’s departure from the White House (in conjunction with the invasion of Capitol Hill) cogently illustrates the way in which social networks have subverted the promise of democracy into a threat to its existence, as network algorithms are co-opted in the service of violence, polarization, hate, and radicalization.

These developments reify the need to balance the considerations in the shaping of policy that governs information pollution in our digitally connected world. The unprecedented challenge we face calls for a re-examination of the boundaries of the democratic discourse that have been defined and dictated by the commercial platform ecosystem’s agenda. The future hinges on the human response – more than ever before, we must seek to foster active media-literate citizens willing to take responsibility for ensuring the availability of reliable information and a public capable of sustaining deliberative democracy and pluralism.

Most recently, the US government announced its intention to sue Facebook for illegal monopolization, while the UK and EU continue to search for ways to tighten government oversight over Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook to ensure a safe network and free and fair competition for online European businesses.

These steps constitute two of the most significant regulatory responses to the growing power-dynamic of digital platform ecosystems on which citizens and societies have become dependent for their social and democratic well-being in online networked environments leading to a crisis of trust. Forming part of an ongoing debate, these regulatory initiatives join a recent wave of platform regulation inquiries in some Western countries, and initiatives by government and civil society actors that seem to be converging around introducing legislation, new internal codes of practice and other tools to ensure citizen agency, rights, and democratic accountability.

In addition, the platforms themselves have introduced self-regulatory initiatives such as the Facebook oversight board and transparency reports in an effort to prove their commitment to respecting individual agency and public values. Yet, public and private regulatory responses frequently appear to favor the platforms’ commercial strategies, and  are  increasingly regarded as insufficiently responsive, thus raising issues of platform accountability with respect to privacy, surveillance, and accurate information.

While governments, tech companies, and public authorities seek to rein in the power and dominance of social platforms, citizens also have a duty to moderate their interactions and engagement with online media in order to protect and uphold their rights. As a response, this Spotlight proposes digital media and information literacy (DMIL) education as a proactive framework to empower citizens to access, analyze, create, and reflect on the media in order  to guarantee freedom of information and expression. At the core of DMIL is a systematic and rigorous approach for developing a critical response to the media and digital ecosystem that draws attention to how information is constructed, and encourages skepticism towards sources of information and social, culture and political power.

Though the wide range of DMIL definitions and programs around the world lie beyond our present scope, the following description offers a critical approach to digital media and information, discussing its limits and challenges in reference to the current media and information landscape.

 

DMIL: Challenge, Social Resilience, and Democracy

DMIL combines two related areas – media and information literacy (MIL) and digital literacy (DL) – under an umbrella term that addresses the usage of social networks and new forms of communication in a digital age. As a composite concept, it expands the traditional understanding of these two areas. Media literacy (ML) is traditionally a framework of knowledge, skills, and attitudes for accessing, analyzing, creating and evaluating all forms of communication as essential skills of inquiry and the self-expression necessary for citizens of democracies. Digital literacy enhances the ability to ask questions about the source and meaning of information, inquire about the interests of its producers, and understand how information is related to broader social, cultural, political and economic forces. Their combination, DMIL education, adds a dimension by focusing on developing individual interpretive proficiency and skills for creating and producing media messages. Its aim is to enhance understanding of the multiple layers of the context and construction of messages, and cultivate an appreciation for the complexity of conveying these layers in digital media and information environments and requisite skills to promote literacy to combat the information crisis.

Underlying this view is the growing recognition that media and new technologies are affecting every aspect of society and culture. Media representations help construct our worldviews and understanding of social reality and the world. DMIL thus constitutes an important tool for engaging with media content and information environments, vital for the healthy functioning of democracy and society as a whole. Through DMIL it is possible to create awareness of digital rights, such as privacy and freedom of expression, develop critical understandings of how digital platforms operate (e.g., how algorithms and search engines work), promote responsible online behavior (e.g., netiquette – online ethics and information authentication to assess the credibility of online sources, and instill preventative know-how against cyberbullying and cyberattacks.

Adding to and following cultural studies and critical theory, the goal is to develop critical media-literate citizens capable of understanding the relationship between power, information usage, ideologies and structures for the domination of the media, authors and their audience. In this context, reflection, comprehension, evaluation of information, and learning how to use and produce media as a mode of self-expression and social activism within digital-network societies must be fostered.

Digital platforms have become central components of civic and political life, in particular amongst the younger generation. This transformation represents a new environment where DMIL initiatives can seek to produce a sense of collaboration amongst young citizens towards the common good. The constructs that are the underpinnings of DMIL – agency, caring, critical consciousness, and persistence – serve as a form of “civic media literacy” that enable citizens to deal with the social, political, and technological realities of contemporary life.

Encompassing both critical thinking skills and a pedagogy of online culture, DMIL thus provides underpinnings for civic and political engagement. As such, it teaches individuals – from youth to adults – to identify biases or skewed narratives in their information sphere and critically engage with new technological platforms. Studies indicate that when young people and adults seek out information and participate in online discussions, their overall level of civic acts (e.g., raising money for charity or volunteering) and political acts (e.g., working on a campaign, attending a political speech, or voting) increases. In this context, DMIL promotes and fosters meaningful and responsive engagement  by involved and active citizens devoted to safeguarding democracy to deal with the challenges of the digital public sphere. This is particularly important in light of the shift in journalism and public interaction towards private channels.

Employed in critical fashion, DMIL can be harnessed to encourage media users to take social responsibility for their information choices rather than intermediaries who merely pass information around platforms. In particular, young people, whose phones form an inseparable part of their identity, rarely acknowledge the effects of their consumption of media, not to mention the ethical implications of the messages they receive and send. Thus, DMIL, if adopted as a mandatory subject in schools, could better equip young people to be resilient to “information disorder” and prioritize that media is produced more ethically and consumed more critically.

Accumulated evidence lends credence to the impact of the field of digital literacy. Studies demonstrate that greater ML education (MLE) directly enhances adolescents’ ability to critically understand and effectively evaluate online information, making them more likely to become active civic participants. A European Commission (EC) report on school practices in media literacy highlights the effectiveness of MLE practices with regard to primary and secondary education in Europe, including their ability to evaluate information and address disinformation.

Numerous DMIL educational initiatives designed to help students and adults combat disinformation are currently in operation across Europe and around the world. These initiatives vary from country to country, particularly with regard to political and educational policies. For example, with its strong critical orientation and close links between theory and practice, the unified MLE curriculum in Israel could be adopted to a wide array of target audiences – secular and religious, Jews and Arabs and age level. Changes in the media system and information environments in Israel have shifted the curriculum towards citizenship education, the social sciences and addressing emerging concerns such as surveillance, privacy, disinformation, etc.  In contrast, the UK ‘ MLE curriculum first entered policy debates in response to media violence and was promoted by media regulator, Ofcom. Over time, it became a functional tool with two policy priorities: e-safety and e-inclusion (digital participation), especially among marginalized groups. Among the diverse array of stakeholders are philanthropists, technologists, Facebook journalism project, and multiple international organizations such as the European Commission and UNESCO.

Israel has also participated in international research projects on MLE and as co-author in the international research collaboration – the DMIL EBook Project –  an inter-cultural dialog  on teaching approaches to DMIL in various countries. While relatively few academic assessment studies exist of MLE efficacy in Israel, its efficacy has been proven in a few areas, including children’s critical thinking towards TV series and ads, students’ attainment of reflexivity and awareness of one’s hostility toward political opponents, and the promotion of democratic values through an open classroom climate for political debates. Despite its powerful impact, particularly in early and primary education, DMIL education is still regarded as an enrichment subject. In order to ensure the ecology of Israel’s public democratic sphere and citizen resilience, ML in Israel, still dependent upon local policy initiatives and budgets, needs to be better established and significantly expanded.

 

A Piece of a Larger Puzzle

While DMIL has become a locus for countering disinformation, it is not a panacea for the latest socio-technological ills, nor does it absolve governments and public and private actors – local, national, or international – of responsibility. The complexity and multifaceted nature of the issue requires a more comprehensive and collaborative approach. DMIL must therefore be understood and assessed in light of regulatory frameworks and policies.

In the long term, DMIL is a bottom-up approach that relies upon empowered, critical, informed and digitally skilled users as the basis for an accountable media ecosystem. It must thus not only be embedded within the school curriculum, but also, extended beyond the classroom if citizens are to develop a critical understanding of media and become civically engaged. Preparation is needed to counter the power and dominance of big tech companies and social media platforms that form modern information ecosystems. These systems seek to present themselves merely as neutral providers of technological services, avoiding responsibility for the content they provide. Citizens must thus be able to employ critical thinking skills to evaluate information, probe with good questions as well as find answers, and communicate well in order to contribute quality information, make their voices heard, and demand media accountability including appropriate policy responses.

In light of the growing evidence of the prevalence of the “information disorder,” commitment to DMIL is important for building structures and enhancing the capacity to act and harness the media and digital ecosystem while confronting its complexities, and ensuring citizens’ rights to reliable and independent information and social resilience in the post-truth era.

The ML 2019 Index ranking the resilience of 35 European countries show that distrust in scientists and journalists are related to MLE. Northwestern countries topped the list with the highest ML scores, suggesting greater resilience to online disinformation and a capacity to withstand its ramifications. Finland, which placed first in the index, constitutes a prominent model of a strong MLE policy designed to help citizens engage critically with the information environment and digital platforms including projects for the development of children’s media skills. Finland and other countries scoring high on the index offer useful and timely example of the way in which countries can seek to enhance their resilience through government and civil-society cooperation.

As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and others claim in the “Biology of Disinformation”, “A virus doesn’t make us sick unless we lack an immune system capable of recognizing the shell and then neutralizing the code.” In the absence of a single solution to the pervasiveness of the “disinformation order” which includes “ill-informed” citizens, it is clear that the digital ecosystem must be regulated and critical abilities for understanding the information around us must be cultivated. In this context, DMIL education functions as a well-established and valued framework necessary for countering the complex media landscape and better navigating the contemporary information ecology. The Spotlight thus recommends widening the scope of DMIL education within national curricula as a way of equipping society to critically and effectively counter the threats posed by the current and future information environments and reinforce the integrity of the democratic discourse for the sake of the public good.

 

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The Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) serves as a platform for exchange of ideas, knowledge and research among policy experts, researchers, and scholars. The opinions expressed in the publications on the IPPI website are solely that of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPPI.

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