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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 I.)

The phenomenon of disinformation does not need to be explained to anyone. Almost everyone is familiar with the phenomenon, has heard and understood the term “fake news” in English or translated into their own language, and has heard about the amplifying effects of social media sites and the shortcomings of traditional media in this area. The topic has been in the crosshairs of academic research for almost a decade, so unsurprisingly many have been looking for potential solutions to this problem. Some see legal regulation as a solution, others fact-checking, but both solutions create many additional problems. Media awareness is the most frequently mentioned “silver bullet”, but this solution is also not as simple as one might first think.

Fact-checking serves as a crucial tool in the fight against disinformation by providing an evidence-based counter-narrative to misleading or false information. When individuals encounter claims or news stories, fact-checking offers a means to verify the authenticity and accuracy of those claims. Fact-checkers help a source of news or information maintain credibility and integrity. This is essential in a digital age where information spreads rapidly and can have significant real-world consequences. However, the effectiveness of fact-checking in combating disinformation is subject to certain limitations. For one, cognitive biases, such as the confirmation bias, can lead individuals to resist or dismiss fact-checked information that contradicts their pre-existing beliefs. Furthermore, the sheer volume of disinformation circulating on the internet can make it challenging for fact-checkers to address every false claim. Additionally, fact-checking might sometimes inadvertently amplify the reach of false information by drawing attention to it. Lastly, in highly polarized societies, fact-checking organizations can be perceived as biased or partisan, leading some individuals to distrust their findings. Concerns have been raised about the social networking sites’ own fact-checking initiatives, pointing to the question of who controls the fact-checkers. Research has shown that there is surprisingly little overlap between the results of different fact-checking sites, and the fact-checkers themselves may be somewhat biased. Thus, fact-checking sites alone cannot be relied upon.

The diversity of definitions of fake news alone shows the complexity of the issues involved. Beyond the obvious cases, it is very difficult to clearly define the scope of fake news, especially in political discourse. The problem of fake news is not simply a question of whether it is permissible to lie in democratic debates. It is a much more complex issue, as it involves examining the political, legal, commercial, and social aspects of the issue. Social networking sites are undoubtedly effective amplifiers of the spread of fake news and it is clear that platform operators have a serious responsibility to curb them. However, what action we expect them to take is far from clear. In fact, if we encourage them to fight fake news with more effective filtering and monitoring, we immediately run into several problems, because on the one hand, we are giving the platforms a legitimate opportunity to shape the democratic public, and on the other hand, we are leaving it to them to decide what they should filter, that is, to decide what is fake news and what is not. Conversely, this means that we also leave it up to them to decide what is the truth. 

The constitutional framework of freedom of speech does not in itself prohibit false speech. Untrue statements of fact are a necessary part of public discourse and as such cannot be excluded from the scope of freedom of expression, so their restriction, certainly in the context of public expression, must be judged by strict standards. It is not a difficult task to leave it to the operators of social networking sites alone. However, the legislative resolution of the issue alone cannot provide a fully satisfactory solution, since not only does the private law relationship governing the operation of the platforms and the possibilities for action raise questions, but it is also very difficult to draft legislation against fake news so carefully that it does not even inadvertently sanction a form of constitutionally protected speech.

The fight against mass manipulation could be more effective if it focused on the means and methods of manipulation rather than on misleading content, thus avoiding the major problem of content-based restrictions, namely who decides what is factual truth. In these forms of action, it is therefore not a matter of the degree of probative value of the content challenged, but of whether or not, for example, a company has run thousands of fake profiles on the site. It also follows that an action focusing on this aspect is much less likely to result in the silencing of certain views or opinions.  

So legislating on this issue is a very complicated and difficult process, and none of the legislative initiatives known so far can be considered a perfect solution, because they are either overbroad and restrict constitutionally protected speech, or they prohibit a very narrow category of disinformation, and thus cannot be said to be effective.

The most frequently cited tool (almost as a silver bullet) to combat disinformation is to develop media literacy, preferably at an early age. In recent years, media literacy has emerged as a beacon of hope in the fight against disinformation. Given the relative difficulty of defining the phenomenon of fake news itself, media literacy is considered by most to be the most effective means of counteracting the negative effects of disinformation on society. The premise is simple: arm people with the tools to critically evaluate the information they encounter, and they’ll be better equipped to differentiate fact from fiction. However, like any powerful tool, media literacy has potential unintended consequences. Understanding these is crucial to ensure that our best efforts to combat misinformation don’t inadvertently fuel the problem.

But what do we mean by media literacy?

Media literacy is an umbrella term that encapsulates several intertwined competencies. At its core, media literacy goes beyond the ability to merely access information; it delves into the understanding, analysis, evaluation, and creation of messages we receive and transmit through various media forms. The Center for Media Literacy defines media literacy as “a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet.” CML also notes that media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy. Cynthia Vinney boils this down to „the ability to apply critical thinking skills to the messages, signs, and symbols transmitted through mass media”.

Media Literacy Now describes it as the ability to „Decode media messages (including the systems in which they exist); Assess the influence of those messages on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; and Create media thoughtfully and conscientiously. According to Matthew Lynch, Media literacy includes seven core skills. The seven core skills encompass: 1) Inquiry, allowing critical questioning of information’s validity and biases; 2) Search and Research, facilitating differentiation between fact and fiction; 3) Critical Thinking, aiding in accurate interpretation of media messages; 4) Analysis, decoding media message constructions; 5) Evaluation, assessing the credibility of diverse media forms; 6) Ethics and Responsibility, promoting safe, ethical online behavior; and 7) Reflection and Self-Assessment, offering introspection on media’s societal impact and one’s contributions. Together, these skills foster informed and responsible online interactions while encouraging positive media contributions.

Taking the different conceptual elements together, it can be stated that first and foremost media literacy relates to the ability to critically analyze the flood of information we encounter daily through any means. Whether it’s a news report, a social media post, an advertisement, or a podcast, media-literate individuals can discern the underlying purposes, biases, and contexts of these messages. They can sift through layers of content, distinguishing facts from opinions, recognizing the techniques used to convey particular sentiments, and pinpointing potential areas of manipulation or misinformation.

The ability to analyze effectively is intricately linked to comprehending the influence of media messages on our views of reality. A person who possesses media literacy acknowledges that each media message is a deliberately crafted portrayal, subject to the influence of cultural, social, economic, and political elements. This entails recognizing that media functions as more than a passive reflection of reality, but rather as a tool that selectively filters, highlights, and occasionally distorts events, individuals, and ideas.

Nevertheless, media literacy encompasses more than a mere collection of abilities; it embodies a particular way of thinking. It fosters a sense of inquisitiveness, motivating individuals to inquire about the phenomena in their surroundings and the knowledge they acquire. The promotion of a more profound comprehension of varied perspectives provided in the media enhances the cultivation of empathy. Moreover, it promotes the significance of active engagement in civic affairs, placing emphasis on the influence of media in moulding public sentiment and governmental decisions.

Moreover, in this digital era, the boundaries between consumers and producers have become increasingly indistinct. Consequently, media literacy plays a crucial role in ensuring that individuals do not merely passively consume information, but actively engage as responsible participants within the media environment. Media literacy entails the ability to discern and acknowledge the significant impact and sway of media in forming views, cultural conventions, and even individual convictions. This statement underscores the significance of engaging in critical inquiry, analysis, and introspection when consuming media content, rather than passively absorbing it without scrutiny.

The significance of media literacy extends beyond the realms of news and entertainment. This topic encompasses multiple dimensions of human existence, encompassing self-perception, interpersonal understanding, and the construction of meaning in our surrounding environment. Media literacy not only aids individuals in identifying misinformation, but it also facilitates a more profound comprehension of the intricacies involved in the construction of information. This includes an examination of the strategies employed to express specific perspectives, as well as an exploration of the underlying objectives or prejudices inherent in a given piece of content. By cultivating a profound comprehension of media, individuals are endowed with enhanced capabilities to actively engage in democratic processes, partake in constructive discussions, and make well-informed judgments in both their personal and public spheres. Media literacy fosters a heightened level of criticality and thoughtfulness in individuals’ engagement with media, hence promoting active and informed citizenship rather than passive consumption.

Overall, media literacy is therefore a very useful and necessary skill that all citizens should have in order to be able to decode information and messages through the media. However, too much emphasis on media literacy can do more harm than good. The reasons for this and its essence will be discussed in the second part of this blog post.

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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