As part of a series of interviews with LSE Faculty on themes related to the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission (T3) being run by the Media Policy Project, Dr Shakuntala Banaji, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, talks to LSE MSc student Jack Marks about historical examples of ‘fake news’, media literacy, the limits of regulation and the (mis)representation of young people in the media.
JM: There has been a lot of academic focus on how ‘Fake News’ is shaping people’s understanding of the world, while there’s been less focus on how film and other popular media shapes people’s understanding of the world. Do you think that film and other cultural outputs are understudied in our contemporary discussion of ‘Fake News’?
SB: This is certainly, something I’m always going on about to my students. The whole debate about ‘Fake News’ has been in some ways a red herring. It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned with truth and accuracy and precision in journalism. It’s that this particular moment has seen a certain group of people suddenly becoming aware of what it means to have their ideas misrepresented.
So, if we apply the notion of ‘Fake News’ to something that many under-represented minorities, including African-Americans in the US, and the Jewish community in Nazi Germany, have been at the sharp end of, to devastating consequences, then the notion of ‘Fake News’ becomes a bit more historicised. So we need to historicise and understand that ‘Fake News’ a) isn’t just constituted by new media; isn’t just circulated by new media; didn’t just come into being in this moment in the 21st century; has a long history related to propaganda and to powerful organisations and political forces; and has been used against various populations – as I mentioned above, and in the colonised countries by the British, by the United States against people in Vietnam during their aggression on Vietnam, by Russia against Chechnya – and that ‘Fake News’ is not just something used by people we don’t like against us. It’s something that has a long history of being used by governments that are supposedly democratic and enlightened all over the world.
Of course, the current interest in and conceptualisation of ‘Fake News’ does draw attention to the connection between politics, big business, news making and propaganda around the world. I did a large study with a group of researchers in the UK around 9/11 called ‘After September 11 2001: TV News Transnational Audiences’, and one of the things that lots and lots of the audiences we looked at – in Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, the UK, etc. – people with not necessarily strong Islamist views, not even particularly religious viewers – were drawing attention to then was what they called the “demonization of Muslims” across the British and US media. Yet, none of the people who are now shouting in concern about “Fake News, Fake News!” were coming out in support of those populations at that time. That misrepresentation of vast swathes of Muslims across the world has had devastating political and social consequences. So, there’s a very selective history at the heart of this current discussion.
The second issue, which you gifted me, is that ‘Fake News’ is circulated via film. On multiple occasions it has been circulated via fiction films throughout history, for instance by: the misrepresentation of historical events; the erasure of groups of people who actually achieved things but are never made visible on screen – and some of that is being slowly and shallowly redressed in the US by films like Hidden Figures, but that is only a tiny tip of the iceberg. The second thing to say is that now on YouTube, ‘Fake News’ is circulating through semi-fictional films. So, for example, groups on the far-right in the Netherlands make these spliced together videos about Islam saying “this is what the Muslims do”, “This is what they’re like”, “This is how they treat their women”, which are a mixture of tiny snippets of factual information but are mainly fiction, mainly myth or urban legend and these kinds of videos elicit a lot of emotion – political emotion – from viewers with xenophobic or racist worldviews, and are also part of this culture of ‘Fake News’.
JM: When I think about films like Oscar-winning film JFK, which promotes a very conspiratorial view of the assassination of President Kennedy, one can imagine how these conspiratorial lenses in film can make people more susceptible to conspiracy theories touted in ‘Fake News’. So, my question on ‘fake news’ – and I’m sure there’s no simple answer – is how can we better link our understanding and our research of this moment of ‘Fake News’ to a lot of the research into how our conceptions of the world are created through popular media?
SB: First, this moment of ‘Fake News’, and the concept itself, has to be historicised. It has to be linked to moments in history where there’s been a lot of propaganda around. Second, it has to be internationalised. So, I’m afraid that this focus on the Western world, on Europe and the US, actually distracts from the way in which networks of information and disinformation are working across borders and boundaries, and the ways in which governments can be perpetrators themselves – for instance by colluding in putting forward a folder presenting a case for going to war, which might also be seen as a hugely powerful form of ‘Fake News’. So, I think it’s about widening out the conversation from this news media moment.
JM: Taking it out of the vacuum.
SB: Absolutely. It has to be widened out from just the anglophone world. We also need to have a focus on political strategic communications and PR groups that have been called in to whitewash the images of various politicians. So, Donald Trump, for instance, hiring someone to organise his campaign who then uses Cambridge Analytica data obtained from Facebook users without their knowledge or consent. That’s all part of the same story in which the current Prime Minister of India hires an American lobbying and PR firm to whitewash his image after he’s accused of sanctioning and turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. First, he’s blocked from entering various Western countries: so this firm starts an intense year-long social media campaign – where they put forward Fake News in the sense that they put out false claims about him, they simply lie through omission, and make stories about what his amazing ‘new’ development agenda. Something about the future is not a lie until it has happened. This kind of PR, which was amplified by online sharing by many citizens who liked both the chauvinism and the idea of development and which brought him to the Prime Ministership, has ripples outside of India. The British business community then, after this campaign, accepts the lie that this man is all about development and isn’t about ethnocentrism, and they move on and forget about his past; and it’s worked. He visited Silicon Valley, he’s visiting London, this Prime Minister who has publicly supported people who have murdered Muslims, who takes weeks to respond to gang rapes carried out by his followers and fellow political ideologues, is now being welcomed in the UK. And the Mainstream Media don’t question that narrative. So, it’s almost like they’ve become part of this narrative.
JM: Basically they’re guilty of ‘Fake News’ by omission then.
SB: It’s ‘Fake News’ by omission, yes. But it has huge and devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of people in India.
JM: To shift now to your work on how children engage with media. Even though people debate the finer details of it, society has generally agreed on a scale of appropriateness for when different age groups can watch certain films or play certain games or what have you. We don’t seem to have developed a similar scale of appropriateness for online engagement – for when children should and shouldn’t be allowed take part in different forms of online engagement. At what age should they be allowed a Twitter account, or an Instagram account, or take part in an online multiplayer game with unfiltered chat capabilities? How can we develop a society-wide, or even codified, scale of appropriateness for children to engage online?
SB: Well the first thing to say is that these scales of appropriateness are blunt instruments. They’re always only going to be blunt instruments. In that sense, if you’ve got films with violent rapes in them, I doubt even having an 18 certificate on them is going to prove effective from preventing some 15-year-olds from watching those films. And I’ve interviewed various people of that age and younger who’ve seen horrendous violence in films. So, while a regulatory system can hope to work, it doesn’t always work as intended. Therefore, one has to work on changing or regulating content in some other way as well, particularly violence.
I want to separate out sexual content and violent content in film just to make a point. Frequently children are prevented from seeing things which are romantic in nature (in films), whereas they are allowed to see things where bodies are being blown apart (on the news). So, I think we have a double standard for regulating what content children get to see in mainstream traditional media anyway, and that needs to be investigated.
The second point to make is: where’s the best place to start when you want to regulate the content that’s available to a particular population? It’s by talking to those people. So, you start by actually going out and talking to lots and lots of children. And when you talk to lots of children, you actually find that an 11-year-old boy, and a 15-year-old girl and a 17-year-old girl, might have very different levels of development. So, regulating anything for everyone under 18 is a very complex and problematic thing in terms of online content. One needs to think carefully about having very schematised regulation, and to consult with lots of different stakeholders, particularly parents and children of different age-groups and with different experiences.
The third thing to say is: while the internet remains an open space for virtually anyone to post, how are you going to regulate the content from producers who are part of big corporations? And how are you going to get everyone who is not part of a corporation to accept these regulations?
An equally great danger for young people online might come from somebody spying on your habits and culling data. So, we might say that only 8-year-olds, or only 15-year-olds are allowed on a platform, but as soon as they’re on there, there may be no violent content, but their consumer habits or political opinions are being tracked, and I think when you’re talking about regulation, the regulation needs to include the platforms on which content is available as well as the producers of the content and the audiences. Children, just by virtue of being exploratory, find their way onto darker corners of the web – horror videos, videos of violent crimes etc. But this is a minority, compared to how many are having their habits surveilled and leaving data trails that will dog them through later life.
I just don’t see at the moment, that unless you’re talking to children about what scares them and harms them, and getting them involved in the debate, I just don’t see a way forward. If powerful adults are putting their heads together without speaking to children, without consulting extensively with parents, they’re always going to get it wrong.
JM: Well speaking of adults getting it wrong, there was the recent controversy about the YouTube kids app, and the scary Peppa Pig videos. So there’s a failure there to come up with a solution by YouTube to scaling appropriateness.
You talked about the need to actively talk to young people, and that links to The Civic Web, the book you wrote with David Buckingham, where you question the idea that young people are disengaged. You flipped the notion on its head and said young people are getting disengaged because systems are set-up to disengage them. I was wondering could you give examples of how young people are systematically excluded from discussion online and offline, and also give some examples of how systems could be changed to better engage them.
SB: Yes, that’s right. In The Civic Web we drew on extensive interviews with young people and civic organisations on and offline to argue that engagement and efficacy in politics has to be rewarding and motivated; and the systems we have at the moment in the political world and the media are actually set up to make young people fail in their engagement. You’ve also just brought to mind a very recent piece of research I did with Sam Mejias, which was on young people and Brexit. We were not comfortable with the ways in which the media were categorising young people as the “disengaged” generation with no right to comment because they didn’t vote, so we wanted to see how many young people had “engaged” over the Brexit referendum. In collaboration with a youth engagement organisation My Life My Say (MLMS) and with the help of some wonderful organisations that work in a great variety of settings across the UK, we helped to conduct 40 focus groups that were really quite diverse with 15-25 year olds. What we found was a very high level of political interest and knowledge. And these weren’t people who were always engaged with politics, but they were talking about laws, about human rights, about the ethos of British life, about what it means to be a citizen. Most of all, they were doing this in highly emotionally intelligent ways.
One of the things that came out of these discussions was that there was a massive majority of young people in our sample who wanted to stay in the EU, and wanted to learn about the EU. They wanted to have some civic say in how it connects to British life. But few were of any sort of typical Brexit mindset. Even if every one of them could have voted and had voted, they could not have re-balanced the older vote for Brexit.
So that’s one of the ways you disengage young people. You invite them to participate, you tell them they must participate, and then when they do participate they are laughed off, because they couldn’t re-balance the political situation to benefit their generation. So, when they do engage, that’s one thing to do, to help them have political impact.
The second thing that is done is that they are mocked. They are ridiculed in the media. If you take a look at the comments on the story when we brought out our report, you will see the ridicule young people are treated with.
Just to illustrate: You would think it’s not that controversial to say that young British people are intelligent? But you should see the trolls out in force who say “they’re a generation of whingers and whiners”, “they’ve never had it so good”, “they’re unpatriotic”, “they wouldn’t be here if the older generations hadn’t fought for them”. The kind of inflammatory rhetoric that is applied to young people when anything is said about them in the British media is so shocking, because had it been said about any other group, say the Roma community or Indians, it would have been considered as hate speech. So that’s a second way of disengaging young people: mocking and ridiculing them when they speak publicly.
JM: And rather depressingly, you can see that perhaps the only way that young people have gotten involved in the politics of the States is in the Parkland Shooting survivors. It’s rather depressing that the only way to get a platform and media recognition is to get shot at. It’s also interesting because it’s a prejudice that’s accepted because there’s a temporal limit on it – “they won’t be young forever, therefore it’s not prejudice.”
SB: But it is absolutely a prejudice. It is ageism, and it works constantly against children and young adults. It allows them to do the same job for a lower wage – why, in what world should that be allowed? It delegitimises their opinions because they apparently don’t have the experiences to back it up, but yet, the people who supposedly have taken us to some pretty bad democratic outcomes in the past. I think the point is that while some young people don’t really want to know about anything political, many young people have political frameworks that are at least equally well worked out as older people’s, but those are constantly delegitimised by the ageist society we live in.
JM: So what steps can be made beyond individuals trying to be more respectful to the views of young people? What steps could be made structurally at a governmental level or at institutional levels to better engage young people?
SB: Okay, so many. I’ll flip that on its head, rather than say “to better engage young people”, I’ll say “to better represent young people”, because young people are not properly represented in a visual sense or a democratic sense.
JM: So are age quotas a possibility?
SB: Well perhaps. Or simply tackling the barriers that stop young people from diverse backgrounds getting involved in politics. You shouldn’t have to have been to a certain school, gone to a certain college, come from a certain income bracket, to get into politics. And of course, it’s often older people who are in that income bracket.
One of the things I find encouraging about Momentum, is that it’s encouraging so many young people to run for office and to work for campaigns, and to shape the political world.
The second thing is we’ve looked across the media, and one of the things my project Catch EYoU has done is look at media representations of young people across the European Union. What we found was that while young people are under-represented in the media, it is shocking how little they are perceived as thinking, civic people. Maybe 80 to 85% of stories represent young people as either a danger to themselves or a danger to society. 15% of stories represent youth heroically succeeding against the odds. And then something like 2% of stories suggest they can be proper, critical citizens. Imagine, if you never see yourself as a citizen in the media, and the media doesn’t represent to older people and other generations that you can be an engaged citizen, it’s harder to engage. And the national media is one of the largest places in which our frames of reference are made. So, changing the way the national media represents young people would be a huge starting point, then move to children. But it’s a very long process.
JM: To move to our final topic and your work on media literacy. I’ll start by asking what characteristics you ascribe to being “media literate” and what initiatives and approaches do you see as being beneficial for increasing it?
SB: To the first question. I think in theory, a lot of people see media literacy as being about accurately ‘decoding a message’. Even a lot of people I work with or people teaching media literacy in schools, they’ll focus on this “technical skill” version of media literacy. But I think it needs to go much deeper than that. It needs to capture questions about privacy and personal data: are you giving away data by clicking through?
I think there are a lot of adults – many of us scholars too – who lack media literacy, but they also lack in persistence. They take massive risks with their data knowingly, and in doing so undermine their credibility as media literate individuals.
Questions that should be asked within media literacy are, for instance: do you know about privacy? Do you know about the ownership of the outlet and what other things they own? Do you know about cross-media and cross-platform ownership and the ideological leanings of that owner? So did you know for instance that the person who produced this film also owns these two broadsheets, this video-game company, and owns this t-shirt company, and did you know somebody challenged this company about their game but they were shut down on this network because the game and the network are owned by the same people or the owners have a mutual understanding? Media literacy has to include that ability to connect various different platforms and their ownership structures and ideological motivations, and how they work together to censor content or to put forward a singular ideological view on certain issues. It has to include knowledge about how to challenge powerful media interests, and the odds against being able to voice alternative opinions. It does of course involve skills, such as being able to blog, and make content, or understand bias and satire. But those are not nearly enough on their own.
And, all of that contextual understanding is at least as important as being able to tell if a proposed fact is true or not because it helps to understand the historical context of narratives being told by the media and by politicians and companies and businesses and powerful individuals.
Now: how best to teach this? I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall, because 25 years ago, we had really quite an intelligent media studies course taught in UK schools. It wasn’t a core subject, but it could have become a core subject. Many English teachers had the opportunity to teach media literacy as part of their classes and many of them did so through film, and human rights materials, and advertising materials. So I remember way back in the early 90s teaching human rights education, helping teenagers in school to recognise the press rhetoric of hatred against refugees, etc. Gradually, as education has become narrower and narrower, and more and more exam focused, we’re beginning to lose all that breadth, that civic knowledge, that sense of being able to understand the world in a way that makes you media literate. So we’re no longer questioning corporate dominance of the media. In fact, corporations have taken over education, and are influencing curriculums without any checks and balances. I don’t want to name any names, but say one large company might own a significant chunk of school textbooks. Some of those textbooks might be history textbooks, and they might leave out unpalatable facts about colonialism or about slavery. That for me is part of the Fake News discussion – the text book is a purveyor of fake news, fake facts and myths. Just because it’s about the past is irrelevant: the past influences everything in the present. But nobody is questioning that.
So there are whole chains of things that are happening that aren’t being examined. Nobody’s questioning why the same companies that run school and the science and health curricula therein have vending machines in schools, surprise, surprise. But that’s also part of media literacy – being able to understand those links between different institutions.
JM: So in short, media literacy needs to go beyond the simple able to tell what’s true and what’s not, and being able to see the wider context of the message and the context of the messenger.
SB: 100%. And it’s tied both to understandings of representation and understandings of political economy.
JM: One final question. Should media literacy also include literacy of cultural products: of movies, games, TV shows, books etc?
SB: Absolutely. Media literacy needs to include every cultural product. It needs to include literacy about audiences, and about schools, education and text books. It needs to understand where and how messages about certain things have certain effects – and different effects in different contexts. It’s also about reading and understanding the implications of where certain statements are made and how they are made. Because this can mobilise audiences to either hate groups of people, or vote in particular ways or to resist particular things. Being alive to such issues of positioning, narrative, justice and inequity is, to me, the essence of citizenship.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Media Policy Project nor of the London School of Economics.