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K-12 Media Literacy No Panacea for Fake News, Report Argues

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From state lawmakers to Facebook advertising executives, everyone seems to think that digital-media literacy is an antidote to a fragmenting media landscape and its attendant explosion of fake news and disinformation.

But a new report from New York think tank Data & Society offers a more cautious take.

Evidence on the effectiveness of media-literacy interventions is still limited, according to the report, titled "The Promises, Challenges, and Futures of Media Literacy."

And there's lots of reason to believe we're facing a far bigger problem than students alone can address, no matter how well-educated they are.

"Media literacy has long focused on personal responsibility, which can not only imbue individuals with a false sense of confidence in their skills, but also put the onus of monitoring media effects on the audience, rather than media creators, social media platforms, or regulators," the report reads.

Written by researchers Monica Bulger and Patrick Davison, the document aims to provide a framework for better understanding current media-literacy efforts, and offers the field recommendations for moving forward.

Among the issues raised: the need to better understand the modern media environment, which is heavily driven by algorithm-based personalization on social-media platforms, and the need to be more systematic about evaluating the impact of various media-literacy strategies and interventions.

What is 'Media Literacy?'

The term "media literacy" generally refers to the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create information using multiple forms of communication, with the larger goal of creating informed and responsible citizens. 

This Education Week video for the PBS News Hour covers the issue nicely.

Forms of media literacy date back to Plato and the ancient Greeks, the Data & Society report notes.

Modern notions of the concept started to emerge in the late 1970's.

Over the past decade or so, researchers who have been documenting students' (and adults') inability to gauge the accuracy and reliability of online information began to sound alarm bells.

And then during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the idea really took off, thanks to a flood of baseless conspiracy theories, made-up news, and inflammatory social-media content intended to exploit cultural and partisan divides.

In response, bills to promote media literacy in schools have been introduced or passed in more than a dozen states. A range of nonprofit, corporate, and media organizations have stepped up efforts to promote related curricula and programs.

Such efforts should be applauded—but not viewed as a "panacea," the Data & Society researchers argue.

Many existing efforts "focus on the interpretive responsibilities of the individual," they write.

But, they ask, is it really a media literacy when public officials deny the existence of climate change, or tech companies proliferate "intentionally opaque systems of serving news on social media platforms?"

And, the researchers wonder, "if bad actors intentionally dump disinformation online with an aim to distract and overwhelm, is it possible to safeguard against media manipulation?"

Such concerns are not hypothetical.

Just this month, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election indicted 13 foreign individuals and organizations for an alleged scheme to use social media to exploit divisions in American society, encourage the election of Donald Trump, and conduct "information warfare against the United States of America."

And in a recent interview with Bloomberg View, Trump's former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had this to say.

"The real opposition is the media," Bannon told writer Michael Lewis. "And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."

Research and Recommendations

Current media literacy efforts have shown some positive effects, according to the Data & Society report.

A 2012 meta-analysis by academic researchers found that media literacy efforts could help boost students' critical awareness of messaging, bias, and representation in the media they consumed.

There have been small studies suggesting that media-literacy efforts can change students' behaviors—for example, by making them less likely to seek out violent media for their own consumption.

And more recently, a pair of researchers found that media-literacy training was more important than prior political knowledge when it comes to adopting a critical stance to partisan media content.

But such research needs to become more robust, the Data & Society report argues.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is also critical, to generate new insights from fields such as social psychology and political science, where researchers are studying the role of "gut feeling" and political affiliation in the ways people analyze and interpret online information.

And those interested in media literacy need to develop a "coherent understanding of the media environment," the report argues, focusing not just on the ways individuals consume information, but the roles of institutions, technology companies, and governments in developing new ways to create and distribute content.

"It is necessary to rethink media literacy in the age of platforms," the report reads.

"From an evidence perspective, there remains uncertainty around whether media literacy can be successful in preparing citizens to resist 'fake news' and disinformation."

Photo: "Fake news" sites, such as the three shown above, are becoming increasingly prevalent, fueling concerns that schools need to make the teaching of media literacy a top priority.--Education Week

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