Since November’s US presidential election, the issue of fake news stories spreading on social media has been in the spotlight, and there are currently efforts underway to limit the effects of fake news stories on the upcoming general election in the UK. Gianfranco Polizzi, a PhD researcher here at the LSE, explains what critical digital literacy means and the role it could play in tackling problems caused by fake news. For more on fake news see our policy brief ‘Fake news : public policy responses’.
The recent proliferation of fake news is undoubtedly a matter of concern. Not that it never existed before – think of the United States’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003, justified by misinformation around the latter’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. But it’s arguably spreading at an unprecedented level because of digital media and their potential to access and spread information relatively easily.
Whether and how governments should act are important questions and although there are no clear answers, many agree that increased media literacy is crucial for tackling the fake news phenomenon. Damian Collins, chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee which recently conducted an inquiry into fake news, maintains that citizens and consumers should “be given new tools to help them assess the origin and likely veracity of news stories they read online”. The need for media literacy is not new, but the terms on which it should be defined, addressed, researched and promoted should be different.
Ofcom’s 2016 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes report suggests that although “both 8-11s […] and 12-15s […] are less likely [than 2015] to say that all the information on social media sites is true”, 12-15-year-olds are “much less likely” to prefer “the BBC as a source of true and accurate information”, rather relying on Google, with “more than one in four […believing] that if Google lists information the results can be trusted”. It should be a matter of concern that while 52% preferred the BBC in 2015, only 35% of 12-15s in 2016 reported relying on it for accurate and true information about what goes on in the world, and that while 17% relied on Google in 2015, that number reached 30% in 2016.
Is media literacy declining? While it would be simplistic to make any predictions, Ofcom’s latest findings are certainly not reassuring. What to do is a big question and, while giant tech corporations like Google certainly need to be involved in the battle against fake news, for now, Internet users are left with the option of either falling prey to it or becoming resilient.
From digital literacy to critical digital literacy
While media literacy is an umbrella term that applies to both traditional and digital media, digital literacy refers specifically to the latter. A functional approach looks at practical skills to access, navigate and use the Internet. Critical digital literacy, on the other hand, aims to empower users to consume content critically, as a prerequisite for online engagement, by identifying issues of bias, prejudice, misrepresentation and, indeed, trustworthiness. Critical digital literacy, however, should also be about understanding the position of digital media technologies in society. Ofcom has looked at adults’ and children’s levels of knowledge and understandings of Internet-related economic issues of ownership, advertising, funding and regulation, which are incorporated into what Sonia Livingstone from LSE and Kjartan Ólafsson from the University of Akureyri refer to as “commercial media literacy”. This goes beyond understanding digital media content to include knowledge of the wider socio-economic structures within which digital technologies are embedded: how are social media platforms funded, for instance? What is the role of advertising? To what extent is content free or regulated?
While many users will be familiar with these issues, we need to unpack them more closely. Critical digital literacy should be reconceptualised in a way that incorporates users’ interpretations of digital media’s potentials and limitations: it shouldn’t be just about understanding Internet-related economic issues, but about critically reflecting on the extent to which these issues have repercussions for society. Critical literacy, traditionally, carries a political connotation – as it is about critical reflection, political involvement and social action – which discussions about digital literacy often lack.
Damian Collins referred to the fake news phenomenon as a “threat to democracy”. To fully counter such a threat, a definition of critical digital literacy should be about understanding, for instance, that although digital media have the democratising potential to facilitate marginalised groups’ political participation and mobilisation, as well as pluralism, content dissemination and diversification of political debate, they’re also constrained by issues of elitism – as they are used predominantly by the most advantaged groups – while online content can be highly fragmented, polarised and, as the post-truth narrative epitomises, subject to questionable reliability.
Therefore, the fake news phenomenon should be addressed through a contextualised approach to critical digital literacy that incorporates citizens’/internet users’ interpretations of digital media’s ambivalent role in society. Fact-checking skills are crucial to assessing content reliability, but will only be truly effective when they are enhanced by an awareness of digital media’s limitations – in relation, for instance, to content fragmentation, polarisation and trustworthiness – in combination with the awareness of their potentials. An awareness of how online content can be disseminated and diversified through different channels is a precondition for the ability to compare and evaluate multiple sources.
Sonia Livingstone and Kjartan Ólafsson suggest that there is a need for “greater digital literacy education for all adults, not just children”. Inasmuch as it should be approached as a lifelong set of abilities and predispositions, critical digital literacy should be pedagogically promoted in tandem with civic education, which is necessary to providing context around which the veracity of content can be more easily ascertained.
In terms of policy recommendations, it is advisable that:
- Ofcom should have the necessary financial means to promote research around a novel approach to critical digital literacy incorporating users’ interpretations of digital media’s ambivalent political potential (bearing in mind that Ofcom’s annual budget, granted under the Communications Act 2003, has been reduced since April 2015 by £2.7m).
- Along these lines, a national media literacy plan should be established in the UK. Teaching critical digital literacy should imply educating users to appreciate what opportunities and risks digital media entail, focusing on their democratising potentials and political constraints. It follows that teachers should be adequately trained to be able to deliver such a plan.
Given the fake news phenomenon, reviewing media literacy policymaking should be inevitable. A new, politicised approach to critical digital literacy will be beneficial not only in tackling how threatening such a phenomenon is for democracy but in facilitating democracy itself by contributing to informed, critically autonomous and digitally empowered citizens.
This post 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.