Teaching Media Literacy Is the Only Real Answer to Fake News

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board. So far, what we know about the board is that it is a “working group” that seeks to counter disinformation that potentially threatens national security without curtailing free speech. Exactly how the board plans to do that, however, remains unclear.

Nonetheless, critics from the left and the right have warned that the board is reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, due to its perceived threat to civil liberties. In fact, within a week, Republican representatives in Congress drafted a bill to terminate the board’s existence.

The concern about disinformation is likely a residual effect of the post-2016 moral panic over fake news. Back then, the Democratic Party and liberal media repeated ad nauseam that the election of Donald Trump was due to the spread of fake news from Russian or conservative sources. And, if those falsehoods could be stopped, they believed it would be enough to rescue democracy somehow. The Disinformation Governance Board, in a way, is a continuation of this same sort of magical thinking.

But, as I noted in my book The Anatomy of Fake News, censorship is an ineffective solution that only complicates the threats posed by fake news. Censorship often backfires, making the content in question more desirable, a phenomenally known as the Streisand Effect. Worse still, it creates a chilling effect, where, out of fear of retribution, citizens refrain from engaging in free and open dialogue.

Censorship is an ineffective solution that only complicates the threats posed by fake news.

Instead of attempting to control the flow of the top down, the best solution for addressing the threats posed by fake news is to ensure that schools teach critical news literacy, wherein students can learn how to be a journalist, evaluate and analyze sources, separate fact from opinion, interrogate the production process, and investigate the politics of representation.

According to scholars Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, media literacy education focuses “on ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality; adding alternative media production; and expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, and pleasure.” This approach produces readers to examine the power dynamics expressed in media.

It’s the opposite of the way media is introduced and discussed in many classrooms across the country. Rather than being tasked with asking questions about how a news source is funded, for example, students are instead exposed to a range of corporate-driven media—such as Facebook, Google, and Nickelodeon—that discourages critical thinking while enhancing brand awareness.

Fake news—which I defines as any false or misleading information introduced as fact-based news—is nothing new. There’s a long history, especially in the United States, of people in power duping the public into believing falsehoods in order to further a political goal. But today, in a society fully immersed in social media and the nonstop news feed, people—regardless of their age or ideology—increasingly struggle to determine the veracity of content.

The decentralized nature of the US education system has prevented Americans from making robust media literacy education available to students, as many other nations have done. Programs like the University of Southern California’s Critical Media Project, Mass Media Literacy, and Project Censored have attempted to fill this gap, but what’s truly needed is a more robust funding structure. And while the post-2016 moral panic over fake news did see many states propose legislation to expand media literacy in K-12 schools, the bills often lacked a mechanism to require it.

So if representatives truly care about the threats posed by fake news, they would be wise to fund a critical news literacy education across the United States, rather than a shadowy and unaccountable disinformation board that arbitrarily lists what is true and not true. Democracy’s strength is derived from a well-informed public, and the public becomes well informed when citizens hone their critical thinking and have access to a free and robust news media system.

The public needs support and resources for a critical media literacy education; they don’t need the Disinformation Governance Board.

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