Media literacy education is in demand today more than ever [column] | Local voices
The US Secret Service released a report in March outlining how the Iranian and Russian governments orchestrated digital attacks on US social media platforms to influence the 2020 elections.
According to the report, they did this by bombing Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with fake profiles, bots and troll armies that would come into direct contact with US citizens in comment areas and specifically attempt to stir up ideological divisions. They also created and shared memes with false information and managed social media pages that perpetuated polarizing ideologies. Their mission was simply to sow division among American voters.
The implications of the report are substantial and reinforce what many media researchers have known for some time: Without media literacy education, we are vulnerable. Navigating the digital information landscape can be difficult; it is full of pitfalls and largely unaudited. Anyone can post something online at any time.
As the total number of hours of daily screen time and internet usage continues to grow rapidly, maintaining media literacy programs has never been more important to our nation than it is now. With this kind of education, we can better protect ourselves from undesirable influences and help ensure that future generations are well equipped for the digital world.
Media literacy is defined by researchers as the ability to evaluate, access, interpret and create various forms of media. For example, knowing how to send a direct message to someone on Instagram, upload a video to YouTube, or understand how to use hashtags could be part of media literacy education.
At the same time, one would also learn important interpretative / critical skills, such as checking information sources, querying the credibility of user profiles, detecting fraud and managing private information across platforms.
Overall, the goal of media literacy education is to give people the tools to navigate the many communication technologies we use and to critically analyze the many messages we receive.
This type of education is not currently available in all of the United States. Although there are some legislators and individual institutions that have tried, there are still no national standards. As a result, even in countries with media literacy training, there are often no assessment criteria, which makes curricula inconsistent or ineffective.
Media illiteracy is an issue in all age groups. For example, researchers from Princeton and New York University found that baby boomers were disproportionately spreading fake news. Meanwhile, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that most middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between a sponsored news article or a real news article, and that most college students couldn’t identify biased content from independent groups like lobbying firms.
As a communications professor, I’ve seen a lot of this firsthand. Virtually all of my students use social media on a regular basis, but only a few have completed training in media literacy.
It is clear that this issue is omnipresent and affects society now. The need for reform has never been so great. To meet this need in Pennsylvania, policy makers have enacted laws aimed at promoting media literacy education in grades K-12. In particular, it asked the students to find out about the risks of passing on personal data on the Internet, dealing with cyberbullying and the responsible use of social networks, among other things. The bill eventually died on the Education Committee of the State House of Representatives, but it was a clear first step in paying more attention to media literacy in our state and our public discourse.
As a researcher, teacher, and citizen, I believe that media literacy is an important part of modern education and can benefit everyone in our community (and nation). Like it or not, most people get all of their information from the Internet. When people have a question, they go to Google. When people are lonely or bored, they go to social media. If people want to be entertained, they go to YouTube. We’re always online and the pandemic has accelerated our immersion in the digital world even further.
With more of society spending every waking moment looking at computers, cell phones, virtual reality devices, and smart TVs, we are doing a serious disservice to future generations by not teaching media literacy in our schools and the rest of our community.
I am old enough to remember a time without the internet. In elementary school, we were taught how to physically use the card catalog in the library to find good sources of information.
But today – although we get most of our information from social media, search engines and other digital platforms – we have not adapted our national educational standards to these changes. Instead, we send our loved ones into the digital world in the hope that they know what they are doing and are not inadvertently influenced.
By building media literacy, we can stop hoping and equip our community to become skilled media consumers and educated citizens.
Lukas Pelliccio, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania and a media / communications researcher. He grew up in Lancaster County.
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