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János Tamás PAPP: Media Literacy: What Is It and How Can It Do More Harm than Good in the Fight against Disinformation? (Part II.)

Media literacy is vital in combatting disinformation, enabling the public to critically assess online information and identify trustworthy sources, thereby making informed decisions. This education is essential for both adults and children and should be considered a continuous process due to the ever-evolving digital landscape. While media literacy is generally promoted as a solution to combat disinformation, it’s worth considering the ways it might inadvertently exacerbate the issue in certain contexts.

While media literacy, or critical thinking, is seen as a remedy against disinformation, its effectiveness is debated. The UK Commission on Fake News found that only 2% of children possess the necessary critical literacy skills to discern genuine news from fake. In Finland, media literacy is taught in schools, but the curriculum is limited in scope, and initiatives targeting younger audiences might not have a substantial impact. Voluntary media literacy courses may only attract those already discerning, missing the broader audience. Disinformation often capitalizes on psychological factors, like social identity, and biases where people believe they’re knowledgeable when they’re not. Some studies indicate that media literacy might not be sufficient in combatting these biases.

Education about media literacy may have several unintended consequences, one of which is that it may lead to individuals developing an inflated sense of confidence in their ability to differentiate between reality and fiction. After receiving training, some people may assume they are immune to disinformation, which may cause them to be less alert and potentially more vulnerable to sophisticated misinformation efforts. As they become more adept at spotting certain forms of misinformation, they might become overconfident in their abilities, leading them to let their guard down and overlook more subtle or sophisticated forms of disinformation. This hubris can be especially dangerous as it might lead people to unknowingly propagate false information, believing they are championing the truth. Overconfident people are more likely to visit websites that are not trustworthy, fail to differentiate between true and false claims about current events when responding to survey questions, and report a greater willingness to like or share false content on social media, especially when it is politically congenial. Behavioral data, survey questions, and website visits all show that overconfident people engage in these behaviors. This can result in what is known as the “third-person effect“, which is when individuals believe that other people are more influenced by the messages sent by the media than they are, and as a result, they underestimate their own degree of vulnerability.

It is also important to consider the possibility that those who spread disinformation will adjust and progress in response to the widespread efforts to improve media literacy. They could craft narratives that are even more complex and nuanced, utilizing the very principles that are taught in media literacy classes, in order to make their content appear to have a higher level of credibility. A research made in the US and India has also shown that although in the short term media literacy can be an effective tool in the ability to distinguish between fake and real news, this effect erodes rapidly and although over time the ability to recognize fake news is reduced, the news reader remains confident in his or her ability to tell what is real and what is not. In addition, the research showed that there was a small but measurable increase in the level of distrust of real news.  

Media literacy can therefore also increase cynicism about the news in general. When individuals are consistently taught to question and doubt media sources, it might result in a blanket distrust of all media, even reputable outlets. This skepticism can create a void where people no longer know whom to trust, pushing them towards echo chambers or fringe sources that reinforce pre-existing beliefs, irrespective of their veracity. While skepticism is a healthy attitude toward information consumption, over-skepticism can lead to the rejection of legitimate sources of information. As people become more versed in identifying potential biases, they may develop a tendency to view all news sources, including credible ones, as inherently biased or agenda-driven. This can create an environment where factual information is met with undue skepticism, rendering individuals more susceptible to conspiracy theories and baseless claims. In other words, the very tool meant to shield against misinformation might render some unable to accept any information at all.

In 2014, Scott Bedley witnessed one of his fifth-grade students mistakenly present the historical figure Ferdinand Magellan as having sailed around the world in 1972 during a class project. The student had sourced this information from Google. Recognizing the need to teach students about discerning information reliability, especially in the age of “fake news”, Bedley introduced guidelines for his students to validate the authenticity of online information, such as checking copyrights, verifying with multiple sources, examining the credibility of the source, and he developed engaging classroom games that challenge students to distinguish between genuine and fabricated news articles. But how easily this can lead to students questioning everything the teacher says, losing faith in the teacher’s words, and, after a few Google searches, starting to quote articles that are completely at odds with the school curriculum. For example, that the Earth is flat. Of course, it is possible to differentiate between the healthy and unhealthy pedagogical approaches of fostering skepticism in pupils and encouraging them to engage in critical inquiry. However, if the sole takeaway of media education is to “question everything,” it could potentially lead to cynicism.

As noted by Jonathan Jarry, an expert in medical misinformation, simply questioning everything without a framework of media literacy and information verification can foster a tendency towards conspiracy thinking. Engaging in an extensive questioning process without adhering to a structured approach for assessing evidence, which is facilitated by the valuable aspect of skepticism, has the potential to steer individuals towards the realm of conspiracy theories. According to a study made by the Canadian Centre for Media Literacy, in order to mitigate the risk of individuals succumbing to cynicism, it is imperative to promote a transition from multiplism to the evaluative perspective. By adopting an evaluative stance, individuals acknowledge the necessity of reconciling both objective and subjective perspectives of the world through the application of critical thinking. It is acknowledged that while attaining complete knowledge of the world is highly improbable, individuals have the capacity to develop valuable depictions or frameworks of the world. Moreover, it is recognized that certain depictions or frameworks are superior in terms of accuracy compared to others, as they are grounded in evidence and logical reasoning. The evaluativist perspective places greater emphasis on identifying reliable sources and approaching media content with an unbiased mindset, as opposed to engaging in debunking efforts or seeking out negative consequences or hidden motives.

Lastly, there’s the broader societal risk associated with how media literacy is presented. If it is framed as a skill that only some possess, it could further deepen societal divides. Those who consider themselves “media literate” might look down on those they deem less informed, creating an elitist attitude that only widens the gap between different segments of society. Such divides can be exploited by those seeking to spread misinformation, using the very concept of media literacy as a wedge. This latter fear, however, increasingly appears to be untrue, as multiple studies and reports have been published to refute it, but the remote possibility of this danger certainly remains.

As Sonia Livingstone argues, in the complex realm of media and the information age, media literacy is often seen as a simple solution to a myriad of issues like hate speech, cyberbullying, and fake news. Many look to education as a means to equip the public to navigate the digital landscape. However, the reality of implementing media literacy is more challenging. For one, education requires a significant investment in terms of time, resources, and infrastructure. There’s also the challenge of reaching adults not within the traditional educational framework. Moreover, while education can be seen as a great equalizer, it often amplifies existing inequalities by benefiting those already privileged. As our lives become increasingly digitized, the scope of media literacy expands, raising questions about what areas to prioritize and how to teach a constantly evolving digital landscape. This also brings into focus the challenges related to the infrastructure and evidence-based practices within the media literacy community. Another significant challenge lies in the politics of media literacy. Calls for increased media literacy often place the responsibility on the individual, which can lead to blaming them for the digital environment’s shortcomings. To truly harness the potential of media literacy, a more holistic approach is necessary. This approach should identify clear roles for all stakeholders and embed media literacy into the foundation of digital organizations. Lastly, the objective should not just be to create obedient online citizens but to foster a space for active, debating, and even dissenting voices in the digital realm.

In conclusion, addressing online issues like disinformation, media literacy should not be solely problem-centric; its long-standing efforts extend to broader citizenship aspects. A holistic, long-term approach, spanning over a decade, is necessary to elevate overall media literacy, inherently bolstering defenses against online disinformation. In essence, while media literacy is undeniably valuable, it is essential to approach its promotion with nuance and awareness of its potential limitations in the context of disinformation. One must also appreciate that media literacy is dynamic, evolving with the rapid changes in technology and media landscapes. As new platforms emerge and old ones transform, the challenges and opportunities they present require a continuously adaptive approach to media literacy. While media literacy remains a vital tool in the fight against disinformation, it is essential to be aware of its potential pitfalls. Like any tool, it is not the solution in itself but part of a broader strategy. By understanding and addressing these unintended consequences, we can ensure that media literacy serves its intended purpose: creating an informed and discerning public that can effectively navigate the complex information landscape of the modern age.

Developing media awareness alone may not be a sufficient solution to fake news. Due emphasis should also be placed on strengthening the role of the press and giving it a high level of constitutional protection, which would provide it with institutional protection not only after publication but also at the stage of information gathering. Support for the production of quality, objective journalistic content could be a means of making it more difficult to maintain the separation of parallel publics. The production and dissemination of quality content may also reduce the possibility of individual personalization, as it is more difficult to select balanced and credible information that is specifically tailored to one’s own opinion. It might also increase trust in the media and perhaps allow a move away from social discourse based solely on opinion and belief towards democratic debate based on facts. A healthy democracy presupposes public debate and free expression of opinion, and quality journalism, including online, is essential for this. The standards and practices of quality journalism are complex, numerous, and dynamic, but the overall goal behind the standards is the same: to produce accurate, balanced, and useful information. Both traditional and online media must operate according to these principles so that in the future they are not tools for social division but for healthy democracy. The implementation of these principles would help to strengthen the role of traditional journalism and the press and restore trust in them, thereby reducing the number of citizens who give credence to fake news. 

János Tamás Papp JD, PhD is an assistant professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary, and a legal expert at the Department of Online Platforms of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority of Hungary. He has taught civil and constitutional law since 2015 and became a founding member of the Media Law Research Group of the Department of Private Law. He earned his JD and PhD in Law at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. His main research fields are freedom of speech, media law, and issues related to freedom of expression on online platforms. He has a number of publications regarding social media and the law, including a book titled „Regulation of Social Media Platforms in Protection of Democratic Discourses”.

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