Distraction Free Reading

From Amusement to Conscientization: The Purpose of Media Literacy in the Age of Misinformation

In one of my first classes in my Undergraduate program in Media Studies, our Professor displayed a prominent newspaper. The masthead and the front page borders were red in color as opposed to the usual black. Then I noticed that the main headline on the front page was on a revocation of a ban on soft drinks giants, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Pointing out the promotional strategy used by corporates in the newspaper, our Professor explained that behind every media content figures a series of intended and unintended agendas.

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Our Professor concluded with, “Take everything produced in the media with a pinch of salt.” For a person who religiously believed that newspapers spoke nothing but the truth, it was an eye-opener. It became a principal tenet in my academic life, in understanding media and in studying media; in reading information and analyzing them. I learnt never to take things at face value again. I learnt discourse analysis, intertextuality, and semiotics. Any media content was never the same again. I started dissecting source, background, context, ideology, style, environment, time, space, duration, type of medium, and production process.

Now, it is no longer the prerogative of media professionals to scrutinize media content. Critically analyzing media has become essential in the 21st century, where communication technology merges with everyday life. The advent of computers and the internet expounded the meaning of McLuhan’s global village to a whole new level (McLuhan, 1962). Communities surpass spatial and temporal dimensions. Communication is no longer linear. Vocal traditional communication takes on the power of mass media through social networking websites.

In the words of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (2013), “Never before in history have so many people from so many places had so much power at their fingertips.” Although the power to create messages broke away from corporates and figures in authorities, off this grew the amplification of misinformation. The anonymity of the sender, editing tools at the click of one’s hands, and the ability to send content to many people together increased the prevalence of misinformation. Superficial reading and thoughtless forwarding further sustain it. As Neil Postman (1985) predicted more than 30 years ago, the quicker the information, the shallower the thoughts. Our lives are governed by a mosaic of images, thumbnails, images, and captions – nothing definite and nothing profound. Misinformation thrives in this environment.

Misinformation can take on the function of gossip, typo, or a misunderstood perspective but most dangerously, it can be a deliberate tool of propaganda. Unchecked information also misleads and functions as clickbait. The number of views, popularity, and revenue supersede authenticity. Diffusion of information through technological advancements as in the case of bots and algorithms dictate message consumption (DiResta, 2021).

Even as the effects of misinformation began slowly percolating in the political and societal arena, the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown furthered the costs and effects of misinformation in everyday life. As an unknown virus hit ‘normal’ life, the click of a button spread misinformation surrounding the uncertainties around the pandemic.  The pandemic of information created fear, dread, and anxiety apart from giving wrong information on essential services.

Uncertain events pose a puzzle. People search for information during ambiguous situations (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994; Kossowska & Bukowski, 2015).  The general public is eager to make sense of what is happening and venture to explain the unknown. These vague and personal interpretations of the Covid-19 crisis resulted in an “infodemic” (Starbird, 2020; Salvi et al., 2021). The tools of information and engagement are turning out to be tools of polarization and fake news. Algorithms, used by different social media platforms in order to increase user engagement, have turned into enablers of misinformation (Ghonim, 2018). Lack of proper information fed this misrepresentation circle turning it into a vicious one, creating an atmosphere of fear and chaos. Scholars suggest that news on disaster and destruction garners more attention (Balzarotti & Ciceri, 2014), while the human mind has the tendency to remember negative experiences vividly (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). The omnipotence of distressing images, ambiguous information filled the media during the lockdown. With socio-cognitive polarization in play, many people tended to believe in false social media messages pertaining to the pandemic (Salvi et al., 2021). Authenticity and context took the backseat. Had it become a situation reminiscent of Postman’s reading of Huxley, “the truth will be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Block of text against a white background that advertises "Breaking news from CNN"

Poster breaks down a news article about the COVID 19 pandemic

People claiming to have alternative knowledge on traditional medicine sent information on purported cures and prevention. During the outbreak of the pandemic, a social media message claiming that tea could effectively prevent Covid-19 infection did the rounds. The message in detail explained the different properties of tea and its uses that would be the cure for the deadly virus. For those with less medical knowledge, the message seemed to have sufficient information to support the claim. Only those who do know the intricacies of a viral infection would understand that this was not a prevention or a cure for a viral disease. Some messages even claimed that the information was researched and well documented. False information on the disease, at this crucial stage, had the ability to prevent people from asking for help. It also tended to increase and promote administration of self-cures. The nature of the pandemic being contagious, false information enabled its spread. The (mis)information itself became a contagion.

In the age where access to content and producing content is high, there is a plethora of information and messages invading every second of our lives. In order to overcome this clutter for attention and choose facts over misinformation, one must be trained to critically analyze media messages. People should learn not only how media works, but must learn to understand the nuances of media content. Among the most important weapons that would be indispensable to fighting misinformation, disinformation and fake news, is media literacy.  When bombarded with information and promotions, media literacy will help individuals spot required knowledge and eliminate fake news (WHO, 2020). The information age has made knowledge narrow and specific. The myopic vision of experts and their affiliations make knowledge biased. Media messages can be altered and structured to favor one method over others (Levitin, 2011). The more people know how media works, they will be in a better position to dissect and read messages, look for patterns and understand the difference between information and misinformation. They will make use of technology to further research and analyze the message source, purpose and relevance.

Poster in Green background with the word "Fake" in red across the underlying test

Poster that warns against fake COVID cures Source: PIB India

People must learn to decipher the authenticity of sources from where they get their information. In India, the Press Information Bureau was foremost in creating the Fact Check website followed by other major news organizations. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) along with the World Health Organization (WHO) also took steps to fight the spread of wrong information on the global stage. The UK Government also launched the “Reporting Misinformation” campaign to notify fake news on different social media platforms. Conducted along with WHO, the information was available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian. Leading global newspapers like the New York Times and Guardian also established fact-checking portals. The website helps people and news organizations to check the veracity of information. Campaigns urged people to check information before trusting and sharing them. Game-based activities like “Go Viral” bring out the fun in media literacy. The game attempts to cover patterns in misinformation on Covid-19 with explanations on how unfound information is virally spread (WHO, 2021). One can use Google’s Reverse Image Search, to check the origin of visual images. This lets an individual check if the image has appeared on different social media. It helps establish the context the original message appeared in (Legg & Kerwin, 2018).

In order to use various tools available in media to control misinformation, people should learn to question and read between the lines. Andrew Postman (2017), seeing his father Neil Postman’s prediction on how media can make inert and lethargic communities come true in this age of communication explosion, writes that as the internet itself allows for people to check and clarify information, “Don’t expect ‘the media’ to do this job for you.” While technology helps people spot and differentiate fact from fiction, there is a need for a deeper impact from being media literate. To be aware of society and the structural iniquities, to be aware of health and environmental challenges, to be aware of the interconnected web that spreads its influence in every aspect of an individual’s life. The aim of media education should not only provide technical knowledge but be directed at forming a critical consciousness. Taking a leaf out of Paulo Freire’s treatise on the need for education to empower from within, it is clear that knowledge should be deeper than the acquisition of information. Freire (1974) writes, “Critical consciousness is integrated to reality; naïve consciousness superimposes itself on reality; and fanatical consciousness, whose pathological naiveté leads to the irrational, adapts to reality.” Misinformation and confirmation bias tend to create people with naïve and fanatical consciousness. By learning to be critically conscious, citizens can train to think, explore, discuss and act on individual and social challenges. Freire points out that “magic understanding” or superficial knowledge leads to a “magic response,” while a “critical understanding” will promote “critical action.” While one is critical, there is a spirit of inquiry and justice. While one is eager to learn the truth, one allows for discourse to learn of other’s opinions. While one is eager to speak, one is eager to listen as well. While one is eager to listen, one is eager to act as well. Indicators of this highly formed, “critical transitivity” is visible through the level of access and space for people to learn and dialogue. When people learn to have this critical thinking, they will be able to view any given information with a pinch of salt. Every individual will learn to read any given information in the context of their societal structures and local culture. Critical consciousness enables people to understand their individual contributions to history and culture. Reading media through this lens will not foster a culture of copying but that of responsibility. They will question, challenge, and share media messages conscientiously. Media plays a fine line here between being a tool to promote critical action and being a tool for magical responses. Communication technology can offer or hinder discourse spaces. The crux of media literacy is learning this difference and bringing about a change in the way people receive, consume and share information in this era where knowledge is just a click away.


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