Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

“An awful lot of highly educated folks, skilled in all sorts of traditional media literacy, are hopelessly lost on the web. (Many of these people are faculty).”

It was Ray Bradbury that said predicting the future was easy. You just look around and predict more of the same. But he wasn’t having it.

“To hell with more,” he wrote, “I want better.”

In the area of digital media literacy education, the “more” prediction is easy. There will be more of it. States, provinces, and countries will begin to roll out larger programs. People will be hired. Initiatives will be funded. Consultants will be engaged and new programs designed. Edtech startups, lurching out of recent personalized education failures, will sense money to be extracted from the public purse and pitch last year’s wares with a brand new pivot. 2016’s coding microcredential platform will become 2018’s information literacy solution.

There will be 32 headlines that claim a newly funded company has “solved the information literacy problem,” all dutifully transcribed from the latest Y Combinator press releases. They will use the term “fake news.” The irony of this will be lost on both startup and tech press transcriber.

So that’s the more. But what about the better?

Lost initially in the mad rush to monetize the most recent crisis will be the fact that underneath the new coat of paint many of these solutions are decades old. That’s fine, of course, if it turns out these solutions help folks make sense of the web. Maybe the failure of them is due just to underuse. It could be.

Me, I’m skeptical. I’ve been involved in online literacy for a decade and I’m not convinced “more” does it. Recent studies seem to support this conclusion, finding that an awful lot of highly educated folks, skilled in all sorts of traditional media literacy, are hopelessly lost on the web. (Many of these people are faculty).

Given this, 2018 could be the year that we refactor media literacy, bringing the insights of people with teaching experience together with experts on the current information environment and people (such as fact-checkers) that most closely model target competencies. This project would start by asking what a citizen needs to be able to do online, and what skills, understandings, and dispositions they need to do it. It’d work backwards from there, tapping into the insights of the newly thriving interdisciplinary field of misinformation. It’d make something new, and suited to the purpose in front of us.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But media literacy has always been crisis-driven, and has undergone major revisions to address perceived threats before. The interdisciplinary collaboration that we see the misinformation field currently engaging in is inspiring, and provides a possible model. This could be the year.

Don’t bet on that of course. Always, always, bet on more. But put your heart and soul into achieving better.

One other prediction, on the rise of the right to be informed.

In our mental model of tyranny, Orwell’s 1984 has an outsized influence. The government chirps its preferred narrative repeatedly at the people, monitors their acceptance of it, maintains the only historical record, and bends history and perception to its centralized will. Orwell’s “boot stamping on a face — forever” is always government-issue footwear, the make and shoe size clearly visible.

In Orwell’s world, and indeed in the world of many past totalitarian regimes, the right to speak and the right to be informed — the ability to hear views outside of what the government provided — were inextricably intertwined. The government had monopoly power over narrative, which it both exercised (keeping the population uninformed) and protected (preventing expression of divergent views). Our society, always set up to fight the last war, has tended to see these rights as intertwined.

This model, however, is outdated. Modern totalitarian regimes do not exercise monopoly control over narrative. Rather, they use a variety of technological and organic means to make competing narratives inaccessible to or untrusted by the public. They leverage the use of “patriotic trolling,” as seen in the Philippines, and armies of paid commenters and fake profiles leveraging real participation. In the U.S., the hordes of bots and people who talk like bots invade competing hashtags and disrupt political communication. Weaponized transparency, defended by free speech advocates, is used to overwhelm the public’s capacity to separate fact from fiction, as we saw with the Podesta email “leaks.” Speech — whether automated or organized — is being used strategically to prevent access to information the public needs to govern itself.

In such a world, we will start to see people, out of necessity, peel apart the right to free speech from the right to be informed. The right to be informed will need to take into account, as Zeynep Tufekci has argued, the limits of attention and the way bad information can be used to crowd out good. It will take into account the deleterious effects of information overload, and wrestle with the impact of systemic harassment in wiping out minority voices. This evolved conception of free speech as a right to expression that sometimes conflicts with a parallel right to be informed will begin to form a legal, technical, and educational framework which is better able to defend against the tyranny face instead of the tyranny we remember.

Mike Caulfield heads the Digital Polarization Initiative at the American Democracy Project.

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