Illustration by Folio Illustration Agency | Photo Credit: Dribbble

Building A New Media Environment with Media and Information Literacy

Living in the digital age, it is vital to understand the media’s progression and the current information landscape. Awareness of the challenges that an increasingly interconnected world brings considering the way we consume and create content is equally important. However, when considering the future, what is truly critical is not figuring out how to grapple with these new developments. The focus should instead be on discovering a renewed purpose in using media and information literacy to benefit from the media’s strengths — making it a useful servant, not master of content.

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Less than a century ago, print media was fundamental in the dissemination of knowledge and was considered the sole medium through which people gained awareness of world affairs. New digital and multiple media channels have, however, transformed the dynamics of workplaces, learning environments and social interactions. With the unprecedented innovation and efficiency that digitalisation has brought into the facets of people’s everyday lives, there is now access to vast information flows, communication and expertise at their fingertips.

Media and the Rise of Activism

As the role of media expands, so does the reach of progressive social and political changes. With its boundless reach and ability to transcend borders and generations, the proliferation of media encourages every individual participating in media discourse to do so with egalitarianism. When like-minded people hail from all corners of the globe, their voices can collectively have the power to raise awareness about issues they believe in, potentially mobilising public opinions in a drive towards fostering cohesive and emphatic communities. This facilitates the open sharing of varied perspectives in which everyone has a voice and right to express their stances and concerns, regardless of nationality, race, or ethnicity. 

Mass pro-democracy movements sweeping across Asia today see tens of thousands of people band together on social media platforms to push for institutional reforms — a prime example of how digital and media tools are harnessed by civil society to push for the protection of citizens’ rights and safety. One such movement would be #MilkTeaAlliance. Born out of shared democratic ideals of youths in Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and Myanmar, it has galvanised protestors in many cities to lend support and advocate the causes in another.  Though contexts may differ in each of these countries, the larger purpose of advocating for democratic ideals remained the same. Thai activists promoted Hong Kong’s struggle against what they deemed an overbearing Chinese authority without having to face potential repercussions under the tight national security law that protests in China face. Hong Kong activists likewise showed support for Thai protests demanding constitutional reforms of the monarchy without being subject to harsh lèse-majesté laws. This transnational democratic movement has amplified what would have been domestic affairs, bringing critical social issues to the international stage.

Digital Empowerment | Photo Credit: ABC News

Media and its Polarising Effects

Though the aim of empowering rights holders may be laudable, digital and media platforms have unfortunately also opened the floodgates for extremists, populists and other stakeholders who may seek to use these mediums for their own agendas. What started as a means for individuals to participate in civic engagement quickly evolved into a tool that allows these malicious actors to conduct targeted disinformation campaigns (that may even deliberately mislead audiences).

Today’s context where media consumers are more exposed to alternative and extreme views in an information-driven, hyperconnected world poses a challenge for societies already fraught with strained relations. Challenges in handling the myriad of opinions that freedom of speech provides could potentially cause such diverse communities to fall into disarray. Moreover, attempts to champion for diversity are often met with resistance and resentment. Perpetrators of white supremacist attacks in the United States, for example, have been known to circulate racist sentiments online. In Germany, instances of assault and arson attacks on refugees rose due to surges in online hate-mongering. Amidst the diversity of perspectives, contentious and blatantly untrue sentiments emerge, and over time, these incendiary statements breed mistrust, creating tensions between different factions of the populace.

Media and the Propagation of Disinformation 

The culture of deception and distrust created by the ubiquity of fake news makes it even more difficult to forge a common ground in an increasingly polarised climate. One would think that most readers are capable of drawing the line between a genuine account of an event and pure fiction. Nevertheless, that optimism seems starkly different from the reality of the ubiquity of disinformation, especially in the domains of digital media.   

Content creation with little editorial oversight combined with the tendency of the general public to actively engage in discussions through multiple communication technologies has rendered users vulnerable to the distorted (if not entirely fabricated) narratives posing as “truths”. Such disinformation, or false accounts and facts that are deliberately manipulated and spread “in order to influence public opinion“, is symptomatic of how radically the media landscape has changed. The 24/7 news cycle and readers’ demand for the latest scoop have pushed news media to prioritise speed over accuracy, which ultimately, compromises the time-consuming fact-checking and editing in the process. In addition, the media tends to be driven by the need to lure more eyeballs to “sensational” stories over accounts grounded in hard facts. However, sacrificing factuality and having the propensity to report inaccurate information poses debilitating obstacles to restoring the Internet’s potential as a space for connection. 

The global pandemic, for instance, created a state of general isolation, resulting in many retrieving most of their information from online sources. As the Team Lead of Infodemic Management at the World Health Organization (WHO), Tina Pumat, acutely pointed out during one of the plenary sessions held at the Global Media and Information 2021 Feature Conference, the detrimental effects of widespread misinformation arose as anti-vaccination sentiments grew in times of a global health emergency. Getting citizens vaccinated continues to be paramount in containing the COVID-19 outbreak, promising an end to the protracted crisis. Yet, the road to recovery has been impeded by an ‘infodemic’ that was unleashed alongside the infectious disease. Coined by the WHO, the term has become an all too accurate adjective of current times. Given the circulation of misleading content denying the realities of the epidemic, and unverified claims that were against the use of masks and vaccines, it seems clear how the media can cause a multitude of readers to accept such information as the unvarnished truth.

These trends are further exacerbated by algorithms that have been optimised for profit by maximising users’ engagement rates. It is in their ability to shape beliefs, and even world views that algorithms attain their greatest power. They construct narratives of what is normal (and hence what is abnormal) through the recommendation of content based on past preferences, effectively reinforcing the audience’s existing biases in a subtle and frequently unperceived manner. Through its lens and mechanisms, perceptions of events are affected and influenced, causing large disparities in what is believed to be the “truth” amidst the sensationalised news.

Becoming Media and Information Literate 

One might argue that being aware is powerful enough to neutralise our basic tendency to fall prey to fabricated accounts. Nonetheless, based on a research study published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, mere awareness, or knowledge, is not a substitute for discernment, which is the ability to sieve through facts in a host of unlimited streams of information. This brings us to the importance of not just asking why, but how to ensure that the content consumed is derived from credible facts and sources. How can flawed arguments be recognised? How can one discern whether certain information is impartial and free from personal biases or interests?

In the media climate where almost anyone can create their own version of news, and only a few have the acumen to tell reality from fiction, it becomes crucial for us to acquire the necessary media and information literacy (MIL) competencies in order to navigate today’s increasingly complex communications environment. 

MIL is an umbrella term that encompasses a diverse spectrum of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values in three distinct areas – media literacy, information literacy and digital literacy. It is designed to maximise the benefits of engaging positively with information and media, while also steering clear from its associated risks. According to the second edition of the MIL curriculum launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), such “opportunities include more access to information and avenues for self-expression, lifelong learning, participation, creativity, dialogue, cultural exchange and transparency”. On the other hand, “the challenges [consist of] privacy and data infringement concerns, rising misinformation, surveillance, mounting online hate speech and violent extremist content, frequent attacks on women and further exclusion of marginalised groups.” Through the adoption of this MIL curriculum in all levels of formal, informal and non-formal education and learning, civil societies actors and communities can gain knowledge on how to seek credible information in order to better critically evaluate information to make more informed decisions.

UNESCO has also made remarkable progress in encouraging collaboration among different countries and multiple stakeholders in the advancement of media and information literacy skills. For one, the MIL Alliance provides an avenue for legislators, policymakers, Internet companies, producers and distributors of content curation, journalists and universities to join forces and facilitate intellectual exchange in ensuring all citizens have access to MIL competencies. To achieve this desired impact of MIL, the International Steering Committee of the MIL Alliance proposed a comprehensive framework that offers every organisation in the field of media, journalism, communication or education a clear guide in devising appropriate MIL approaches. Since its inception during the Global Forum for Partnerships on Media and Information Literacy, which took place from June 26 to 28, 2013, in Abuja, Nigeria, the MIL Alliance has brought together more than 700 member organisations spanning over 100 countries. According to the United Nations (UN) Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Nada Al Nashif, these ongoing efforts in promoting MIL development, assisting in the integration of MIL in national policies, and working to eliminate duplication and fragmentation across broad “have very successfully positioned MIL on the global agenda” and have been contributing to “the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals, notably, quality education (Goal 4) and gender equality (Goal 5) [as well as] towards progress in consolidating peace, justice and strong institutions (Goal 16).”

Global Media and Information Literacy Week 2021| Photo Credit: UNESCO

2021 marks a key milestone for promoting media and information literacy – a decade after the adoption of the Declaration on Media and Information Literacy in Fez Morocco. As the media and information landscape progresses, UNESCO’s function as a platform to promote effective MIL cooperation will only continue to grow in relevance. At the same time, individuals must take their own initiatives to become media and information literate. Although it is worthwhile to appreciate the convenience and assistance of this technological disruption, one must be mindful of the inherent threats embedded in these new paradigms of communications. If the world continues to grow its appetite for misinformation and disinformation, it would be all the more prudent for society to slow down and consider the rationale and importance of developing essential media and information literacy skills. Few understand how digital media functions, yet millions still derive their “facts” from this very sphere. By asking the right questions, only then can people be protected against the worst excesses of the digital age.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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