Teaching media literacy is the only real answer to fake news

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announcement the creation of a Disinformation Governance Council. So far, what we know of the council is that it is a “task force” that seeks to counter disinformation that potentially threatens national security without restricting free speech. However, exactly how the council plans to do this remains unclear.

Nevertheless, the critics of left and the to the right have warned that the board is recalling the Ministry of Truth at George Orwell 1984, due to its perceived threat to civil liberties. In fact, within a week, Republican representatives in Congress drafted a invoice to end the council’s existence.

Concern over misinformation is likely a residual post-2016 effect moral panic on fake news. At the time, the Democratic Party and liberal media repeated ad nauseam that the election of Donald Trump was due to the spread of fake news from Russian or conservative sources. And, if these lies could be stopped somehow, they thought that would be enough to save democracy. The Disinformation Governance Council, in a way, is a continuation of this same kind of wishful thinking.

But, as I noted in my book The anatomy of fake news, censorship is an ineffective solution that only complicates the threats posed by fake news. Censorship often backfires, making the content in question more desirable, a phenomenon known as Streisand effect. Worse still, it creates a chilling effect, where, for fear of reprisals, citizens refrain from engaging in free and open dialogue.

Censorship is an ineffective solution that only complicates the threats posed by fake news.

Instead of trying to control the flow of information from top to bottom, the best solution to dealing with the threats posed by fake news is to ensure that schools teach critical information literacy, where students can learn to be a journalist, evaluate and analyze sources, separate fact from opinion, interrogate the production process and investigate the politics of representation.

According to scholars Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, media education focuses “on the critique of ideology and the analysis of the politics of representation of the crucial dimensions of gender, race, class and sexuality; integrating the production of alternative media; and expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, and pleasure. This approach encourages readers to examine the power dynamics expressed in the media.

It’s the opposite of how the media is presented and discussed in many classrooms across the country. Rather than being tasked with asking questions about how a news source is funded, for example, students are instead exposed to a range of corporate media– such as Facebook, Google and Nickelodeon— that discourages critical thinking while improving brand awareness.

Fake news – which I define as any false or misleading information presented as factual information – is nothing new. There is a long history, especially in the United States, of people in power fool the public to believe lies in order to pursue a political objective. But today, in a society fully immersed in social media and the streaming news feed, people, regardless of their age or ideology– find it increasingly difficult to determine the veracity of content.

The decentralized nature of the American education system has prevented Americans from providing students with a solid media education, as many other nations have done. Programs like the one at the University of Southern California Critical media project, Knowledge of mass mediaand Censored project tried to fill that gap, but what we really need is a stronger funding structure. And while the post-2016 moral panic over fake news has seen many states propose legislation to expand media literacy in K-12 schools, bills often lacked a mechanism to require it.

So if reps really care about the threats posed by fake news, they would be wise to fund a critical information literacy education across the United States, rather than a shadowy and irresponsible disinformation board that arbitrarily lists what is true and what is not true. The strength of democracy comes from a well-informed public, and the public becomes well informed when citizens sharpen their critical thinking and have access to a free and robust information system.

The public needs support and resources for critical media literacy; they don’t need the Disinformation Governance Council.



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Donnie J. Milburn