Leveraging Media & Information Literacy (MIL) against fake news – potential and challenges

As the phenomenon of fake news continues to disrupt political processes, media, and journalism practice around the world, the question arises whether it is time to look back at long-standing media development toolkits for a possible solution. Media Information Literacy (MIL) has been an integral part of media development programming, especially in the Global South. Can MIL be effectively leveraged as a potential tool to counter the adverse effects of fake news? If so, how might existing MIL strategies be adapted for such a purpose? Dennis Reineck (DW Akademie) and Chido Onumah (AFRICMIL; PAMIL; GAPMIL) responds to these emerging questions for the GFMD.

Dennis Reineck                                                                                          Chido Onumah

Dennis Reineck is Project Manager, Research and Evaluation, Department of Strategy and Consulting at DW Akademie.

Chido Onumah is Coordinator at African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Chair of Pan African Alliance on Media & Information Literacy (PAMIL), Co-Chair of Global Alliance on Media & Information Literacy (GAPMIL).

Due to the current reality of user-generated content, fake news travels faster than the fact-checking required to counter them. With the wider media and media development community trying to tackle this phenomenon, can MIL be a potential solution?

DR: MIL can certainly be part of the solution. In the discussion on fake news, much like the debate on hate speech, there are two camps. One camp demands more regulation, allowing governments to clamp down on messages considered inappropriate. The other addresses competencies of the user, strengthening her capacity to discern between adverse and good messages and enabling her to make positive contributions. From a human rights perspective, freedom of speech is a precious good, which is why the latter option should, from our point of view, always be preferred. MIL is aimed precisely at developing these competencies.

CO: I think MIL can play an important role in this regard. There isn’t a better time for citizens in a democracy, particularly young people who live in a media-saturated world and who are constantly exposed to digital devices, to develop the capacity not only to generate content but to critically analyse the content they receive and create. MIL is key and can empower young people to sift through the maze of confusion and distortion.

What, in your experience, are the primary challenges and pitfalls in the implementation of MIL?

DR: Among the numerous challenges MIL practitioners face, three stand out: (1) Applying a user centred design, tailoring MIL methods and subjects to fit the media users (education levels, age etc.) and avoiding ready-made recipes; (2) Taking account of the complex media ecology (traditional and social media) the users encounter in their everyday lives and comprehending which challenges they face; (3) Making MIL sustainable by institutionalising it in national curricula and targeting intermediaries while ensuring that the efforts are as independent as possible from singular persons or organisations.   

CO: I think, from my experience the primary challenges and pitfalls of MIL are (1) the lack of awareness of the benefits and roles of MIL in an ever-expanding digital media world; (2) the lack of interest on the part of those (governments, institutions, etc.) who should support MIL; (3) the role of the global media that sees MIL as an “anti-media movement” (4) poor research and funding of MIL programmes.

Does the existing understanding and implementation of MIL need a re-think in order to reflect the global scale of the issues it currently has to confront?

DR: On the one hand, especially from the point of view of ordinary citizens, public spheres are still fragmented very much along national and language boundaries. Many issues related to MIL have to be reflected with this context in mind. On the other, the Internet has enabled transnational communication on an unprecedented scale. A few years ago, no-one would have believed that foreign countries can have a decisive purposeful influence on the outcome of national elections via social media. So certainly, the global flow of communication has to be reflected too.

CO: Definitely. It is important that the response by MIL is global in nature considering the global nature of media and digital technology. Promoters of MIL must develop creative ways to make it more appealing to citizens around the world. MIL should be seen not as an attempt to limit the rights of citizens but to empower them to make informed choices. It must operate from the paradigm that we live in an interconnected world and that while different societies may have their unique ways of doing things, the effect of technology (fake news, radicalisation, etc.) impacts people around the world in much the same way.

What should be a primary concern for MIL practitioners? Should MIL be an integral part of media development programming?

DR: An important aim of MIL should be to give underprivileged and marginalised segments of the population a voice to express themselves and their concerns. New technologies hold much promise in this regard, though barriers for participation should be kept low. In the past, media development has focused more on output than on outcomes and impact. We need to focus more on what the users do once they have acquired new skills and insights. Good quality media and information sources are worth nothing if the things they convey fall on unfertile soil. This is where MIL enters the fold, equipping users with the ability to gauge and value good sources. Thus, media development should focus on both sides of the communication process, on the communicators as well as the recipients. 

CO: Considering the importance of MIL and the ever-expanding frontiers of media and information technology, MIL should be an integral part of media development programming. It is important that both media practitioners and media consumers understand their roles and responsibilities. But what I think should be the primary concern of MIL practitioners is how to ensure that MIL is integrated into, not just formal education but informal education as well. The way to help MIL grow and respond to the challenges of the future is to integrate it into the school curricula at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education.

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Source: Global Forum for Media Development https://goo.gl/v5dG6h