Improving the public’s media literacy is often cited as a key solution to the problems presented by the current information crisis, but how to go about doing this is less clear. LSE’s Damian Tambini writes here about some first steps that government could take to improve media literacy.
In the fog of war over misinformation, child internet safety and the ‘techlash’ against data surveillance, the need to improve media literacy is the one area of policy everyone agrees about. When it comes to using digital media, not only does media literacy allow users to identify and minimise online risks – from misinformation to cyberbullying and hate speech – but it also enables them to maximise the opportunities that come with using the internet. So empowering children and adults to understand and control their media environment, and who and what to trust, has to be part of the solution.
But government actions to date have been hesitant. There is rhetorical support for media literacy but no money, and no plan yet for how to deliver a step change in policy. Parents and teachers have no clear sense that literacy outcomes are improving, and there is confusion about which messages to deliver.
It does not have to be this way, however. Setting aside whether media literacy is to become firmly embedded in the curriculum or how the latter may be revised, with an internet safety white paper on the horizon, there are several things that any government that really wants to shift the dial on media literacy could do, without new money and relatively quickly.
1. Encourage consumers to choose platforms on the basis of safety information
Price comparison sites allow consumers to make informed choice on the basis not only of price, but of other metrics such as customer support and service quality (such as broadband speed). These schemes are encouraged and even accredited by statutory regulators. Comparison accreditation services are provided by Ofcom and by other regulators, such as in the energy sector. These accreditation schemes could be improved to include also safety/ kitemark schemes to impose standards on the big internet platforms. Nutrition labels and ‘credibility signals’ require consumer awareness, and this could be provided through accreditation and encouragement of comparison sites
2. Link media literacy education to self-regulation
Parents and teachers are sometimes at a loss about whether to name names. Is Instagram off limits, for what year groups, and what about Snapchat? Different services have different age related safety and data protection policies, and these combine voluntary and legal standards. A government led annual report on internet safety and the performance of these platforms would be hugely helpful to parents and children. The recent LSE Truth Trust and Tech report suggested that a new body should be responsible for reporting on platform performance according to criteria agreed through public consultation. This body should also provide annual information, and advice about the specific safety and transparency records of large internet platforms such as social media.
3. Consult on a levy to pay for more extensive media literacy training
The government has been monitoring existing initiatives in media literacy. Hopefully they will identify strong initiatives to support, but this costs money. One way to pay for better literacy training and support for all ages would be to make the platforms pay into a safety fund. There are similar initiatives for the gambling and alcohol industries. Yet the government’s proposed digital services tax does not incentivise pro-social behaviour on the demand side or among consumers, and is not hypothecated to offset negative social impacts. If government is serious about improving safety, it could back up recent threats to ‘ban social media’ by the Health Secretary with a consultation about a levy to fund initiatives that promote media education and provide media educators with training.
Media literacy is not all about safety: it is also about the positive potential of the internet to provide access to information on an unprecedented scale. But we still lack a framework to permit all people to enjoy online freedom in a position of trust and security. The recent Truth, Trust and Tech report from LSE set out some proposals to join up policy in this area for the long term. There is a long way to go, and the government needs a strategy to transform the landscape of co-regulation, and link it to concrete ways that will help parents, teachers and all of us negotiate the coming years of tech change.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.