A media-literate society is a precondition for a proactive and healthy democracy. We may have believed that the free flow of information ensures healthy democracy. It is still true, but the information should be trustworthy. Maybe, we have to tweak the conversation to talk of credible information. This fact emerged during the five-day-long seminar on media literacy organized by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, United States Department of State in early October 2020. How do I create conditions for a media-literate society? By getting my priorities right. “In the limited time we may have for the consumption of information, it is important to inculcate the habit of fact-checking and verification,” says Christina Anagnostopoulos, who is part of the Reuters Fact-Check team.
The internet has amplified people’s capacity to express themselves. As individuals and institutions, our capacities must be directed towards debunking misinformation and disinformation if we understand the harmful potential of every falsehood finding its way to the internet. “In fact-checking, I prioritize demonstrably false, editorially harmful, and widely circulating information. Undoing the harm is always a priority,” says Anagnostopoulos. What difference can a set of media-literate individuals make to the unchecked flow of misinformation and disinformation?
Then comes the big question: How do you identify yourself when you are a professional fact-checker? Or one who is institutionalizing media literacy with a view to ending misinformation and disinformation. “It is good if I am positioning myself as a non-partisan observer of information flow,” says Michelle C. Lipkin, Executive Director, National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), New York, US. Nora Benavidez of PEN America adds another perspective. “I can position myself as an organization with a special interest in democracy. When authoritarianism is using the information to hide facts from the public or to sway the public, my intervention is essential.”
Is there a consensus on what is misinformation and disinformation? Yes. There is a broad consensus. Disinformation is false information originating from the governments and is aimed at deceiving the public. Misinformation is inaccurate information. Sometimes, misinformation arises out of ignorance or confirmation bias and may still have the intention of swaying the public in a particular way. However, the power of the internet may lead to the amplification of misinformation and hence has unintended consequences on a scale that we cannot imagine.
One presentation stood out in the event; a positive action to stem hate speech. Althea Middleton-Detzner of PeaceTech Lab spoke of how her team puts together lexicons of hateful terms to fight hate speech. Such compilations in different languages could be a shot in the arm for social network giants. The recurring rhetoric from social network giants is “How can we delete bias and prejudice in society?” That is definitely a challenge. The challenge is also about how not to proliferate bias and prejudice in society. Lexicons of hateful terms produced in a bottom-up style are examples of positive action in this direction.
In some instances, the lack of information leads to conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories do have political intent in many instances. At IPPODHU, I believe that the proliferation of journalistic content with rigorous journalistic values of accuracy, fairness, and evidence could be one of the positive actions to arrest the spread of lies. In other words, the constant show of facts can be a great antidote to falsehood. Amplifiers of truth can counter the amplifiers of untruth. This sounds like a simple fact, but it is a lot of work. Positive actions include talking to family and friends who share misinformation. Journalists have the power to be great resources in this constant battle. That is if they keep learning and are actively participating in conversations on the role of media houses in the spread of misinformation. It is not a bad idea for journalists to take a pledge to save lives by upholding the truth.
For this to happen, journalists and other stakeholders in the information supply chain should realize the need to empower everyday people with credible information. Anne Collier, Executive Director, The NetSafety Collaborative, is categorical that media literacy is protection against misinformation and disinformation. Currently, media literacy education is not able to match the pace of technology innovation. Scaling media literacy education and prioritizing collective response to disinformation and misinformation should be done at a fever pitch. As was suggested by Paul Mihailidis, Graduate Program Director for Media Design at Emerson College, Boston, the US at the beginning of the event.
Transparency about journalistic practices is playing a central role in helping the public understand the media better. “Transparency in reporting process and other media production processes are crucial for understanding the media,” says Kristy Roschke, a media literacy expert, Arizona State University, US. To understand that every source has bias is key to media literacy. “For instance, a car crash is not newsworthy for several media outlets. Any plane crash is newsworthy for many media companies. This is certainly a bias,” explains Matthew Johnson, Director of Education, MediaSmarts. Even if all the misinformation and disinformation disappear, media literacy will remain relevant. “Because, media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication,” says Lipkin. That is awesome. Isn’t it?