Shashidhar Nanjundaiah | Can media literacy efforts ensure information transparency?
In India and many other countries where media literacy is still in its infancy, the discourse is still largely fundamental
In the last week of October 2021, the United Nations-sponsored Global Media and Information Week in South Africa, involving India, decided to fight disinformation by improving people’s ability to counteract it. In the age of the right to information, nothing could position media literacy better than its function of demystifying information processes for the general public. But a pandemic or an election cannot define the contours of what media literacy should achieve.
The concept of media literacy dates back more than eight decades, but it was not until 1992 that a national conference of senior scholars and policy makers in the United States discussed its scientific relevance.
Several American high schools have since adopted media literacy as a subject. In 2019, the US Congress, accelerated by the machinations of then President Donald Trump, passed the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act (DCMLA) to “promote digital citizenship and media literacy”, media literacy in terms of access, analysis, evaluation, Decision making, technological fluency and greater reflection. When the Covid-19 pandemic further uncovered the gaps in modern news flow and reception, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for measures to be taken against the “infodemic”. That year, Illinois became the first US state to mandate media literacy education in its public high schools. Scientists are still examining whether media literacy should be “more critical” and encourage and empower learners to scrutinize, for example, the media and predominant sources of information. These efforts are supported by several independent initiatives to promote media literacy among the general public.
Meanwhile, this year, as the heartland of the piloting of the South Africa resolution, the Indian government participated in the global discussions on media literacy. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said at a round table in September this year: “While the world is fighting the pandemic … [it] It is important that the infodemia issue is addressed at the highest level ”(emphasis added). He went on to explain that India had been quick to deal with fake news and misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic through “clear communication based on science and facts”. He named the daily press conferences as the mode.
When governments take on this responsibility, some questions arise: Will state interpretations of media literacy help us to draw important isobars between communicative rights and obligations, between freedoms and public awareness? Will we also learn about the role of government “official sources” in managing information? Are governments likely to acquire media literacy for political gain? Is it likely that a government sponsored media literacy program will address these issues? Despite Mr Thakurs’ claims to provide scientific and transparent information to the public, has the government educated citizens about the difference between soil reality and positive spin?
During the first and second waves of Covid-19 in India, official sources took the opportunity to set up media agendas that downplayed the severity of the pandemic, often focusing on politico-nationalist rather than national agendas: How the government broke records in vaccinations and how Indian industrialists and innovators “turned the pandemic into an opportunity” and developed a domestic ventilator industry. Without attentive sections of the national and international media, we would probably not be aware of the plight of invisible groups such as migrant workers and the vast rural communities. Extracting official statistics and making them available to the public has been difficult for the media, even when the government denies independent, potentially inconvenient data.
Pavlovian experiments such as calls for the popping of ships led to widespread superstition.
In India and many other countries where media literacy is still in its infancy, the discourse is still largely elementary. In an experiment on media literacy, for example, students learn to use the media as a learning tool in school; Another hoax experiment encourages learners to go through the elaborate and proactive fact-checking process. A learner may be forced to learn the tool and not feel the need to do more quality, critical tasks. There is a huge gap in high schools and college curricula when it comes to helping students consume media messages and create messages for social media. At the center of media literacy is the influence of the messages conveyed – and not those that have been made invisible.
Viewing media literacy as a public good is commendable, and the provision of accurate, transparent and scientific information should be the primary responsibility of any government. Dispelling falsehoods is noble as long as we can agree on what a falsehood is. But the establishment of the government in international forums takes place in an environment in which there are no substantive discussions about media literacy within India. Indeed, with its global declaration that media literacy must be addressed at the highest level, the government has aggressively anticipated such a discussion. A counter-argument that must be heard is that legislation and the design of media literacy education require debates and discussions and must open up to such difficult approaches as the authenticity of official sources.
Media “prosumers” are constantly consuming and producing news and communicating en masse on social media. This new medium is amphibious, where so-called mainstream media messages collide, collaborate with users’ opinions and increase their influence. The users of the amphibious medium – even writers and editors – now act as setters of the public and media agenda. Most of us have never received any formal training in mass communication, let alone the freedoms and responsibilities that come with our citizenship. In this amphibious space, the articulated word is king.
How can we access and evaluate data that are not accessible to the media and the public? Can media literacy inform citizens about the news they don’t see? Media narratives run in line with government narrative, especially in nationalist settings and especially in crises. In the hypernationalist environment in which we live, official sources have access, influence and power that independent sources often do not have. Mediated nationalism can mix truths with government statements. That is why we are often confronted with a “rural blind spot” on our English-language television news channels, for example. Invisibility is of great benefit to nationalism, a powerful tool in nation branding and of course in politics. What you can’t see, you don’t have to understand. Therein lies the problem of current interpretations of media literacy.