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Media Literacy

Media literacy helps to dispel fake news

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A man looks out of his home next to a poster asking the public not to participate in spreading fake news in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photo: AFP)

To combat fake news and other forms of disinformation, media and information literacy (MIL) training is your best arsenal. Contrary to legality, MIL relies directly on user awareness. While other solutions are not uninteresting, their shortcomings quickly become apparent.

The ever-increasing use of social media websites and related applications, as well as the decline in traditional information sources over the past decade, has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in online disinformation.

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis has dramatically intensified this phenomenon and created what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls “infodemic”.

Taiwan provides a prime example of the non-legal fight against disinformation, and in particular “infodemia”. Instead of passing “fake news” laws, the government uses transparent, legible, quick and independent fact-checking.

Based on the principles of “fast, fair and fun,” Taiwan recognizes that measures to combat disinformation are most effective when they are taken within an hour of the disinformation being spread.

The answers, which are usually in the form of memes and pictures, are designed to grab attention first before presenting the facts that counteract the wrong information. Taiwan’s experience shows that when dealing with infodemia, a confident and grounded government combined with an informed citizenship is the best defense.

Infodemy thrives without credible and transparent information. The latter situation occurred in Japan, for example. Under the Covid-19 State of Emergency (SOE), journalists’ access to government press conferences shrank.

However, governments have the ultimate ethical and legal responsibility to ensure that citizens have access to accurate and reliable information. Therefore, a healthy and independent media environment is required to prevent government-run sources of information from becoming state propaganda.

An effective MIL exhorts citizens to quickly identify potentially problematic sources of information. The latter includes the recognition of “fact-checking” agencies set up by several governments.

For example, the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia of Malaysia set up Sebenarnya.my in 2017. However, critics immediately pointed out that the fact-checking website promoted the state version of the truth and lacked objectivity. The risk is that the government’s alleged “fact-checking” is just a means of stifling criticism. MIL provides the critical thinking skills necessary to lead citizens to identify credible and independent sources of information.

Civil society organizations such as Maindo in Indonesia have tried to counter this risk by setting up independent fact-checking networks. These offer citizens a portal to check information read online and to signal dubious information. However, most of these information organizations suffer from inadequate financial and human resources, making it impossible for them to sift through the amount of information that is exchanged every second on the internet and social media.

Technology companies have recently developed tools and processes that users can use to report malicious content. However, as with fact checking, their responses are logically reactive and consist in removing content that has been signaled. If the content is removed from the platform, it has become widespread and could already get out of control.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook opened a Covid-19 information center and automatically added a warning link to every post that mentioned Covid-19. This systematic redirection to reliable information is laudable, but its indiscriminate target soon rendered it ineffective as users got used to the warning.

Reliable and usable MIL requires imparting a minimum understanding of the technologies used by technology companies, especially new technologies such as artificial intelligence and algorithms, to attract citizens to preferred content and to false and misleading content that is harmful – all in the name of advertising revenue and data collection.

Google has claimed that they fight fake news by improving quality journalism on their platforms: their search engine ranks the results of news queries based on relevance and authority. The problem is that time-consuming quality journalism, including investigative journalism, is not profitable and has fallen victim to large, for-profit media companies.

While fact-checking initiatives are hampered by the spread of fake news in numerous languages, MIL enables any media user to identify and avoid fake news. In South Korea, after-school and youth center programs addressing various aspects of media and information literacy are widespread, and elements of the MIL have gradually been incorporated into curriculum reforms since 2007. In contrast, Southeast Asia appears to be lagging behind in promoting and training MIL.

To meet the global need for media literacy education, the United Nations Education, Science and Culture (Unesco) has developed tools ranging from a country assessment framework and policy recommendations to a teacher curriculum and teaching materials.

Effective use and appropriation of these MIL tools by Southeast Asian states would be a victory in the fight against disinformation. In addition, the promotion of freedom of expression and democracy depends on a media-savvy public that can easily identify and combat disinformation.

Each of the solutions to disinformation plays a role and none should be abandoned. Nevertheless, the most effective weapon against disinformation remains media literacy, including digital literacy, which should not only be fostered through local CSO initiatives and specialized centers, but above all integrated as a core component of formal education in every country.

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