Online platforms are full of examples of misinformation – from WhatsApp messages offering a miraculous cure for COVID, to social media posts claiming a politician said something he didn’t.
This is increasingly common in South Africa. More than 75% of South Africans say they regularly come across political information that they consider false. Eight out of 10 South Africans believe that misinformation (or “fake news”) is a problem or a serious problem in the country.
Researchers and policymakers have been working on strategies to counter misinformation for years. Some policymakers have suggested new regulations or pressured tech companies to do more. These actions often raise the question of how to reconcile freedom of expression and regulation.
Another option is to increase levels of media literacy among citizens. Media literacy refers to the ability to read media texts critically, to understand the relationship between media and audiences, and to know how media production processes work. In different parts of the world, research has shown that educating people better about the media can help reduce the spread of misinformation.
We recently worked with Africa Check, the largest fact-checking organization in Africa, to map the state of media literacy education in five South African provinces.
In a new report, we describe what media literacy skills are and aren’t being taught in high schools and universities, and what’s stopping schools and educators from teaching them.
The research is part of a larger project to develop resources for media literacy in the country.
We found that South Africa lacks a comprehensive national media literacy curriculum. It is often up to teachers and schools to educate learners about media.
Some skills are taught in different subjects, such as life orientation, technology, language or history. This means that media literacy content is fragmented, diffuse and limited. Learners learn how to use media, stay safe online, and produce media content, but there is much less emphasis on fact-checking and media verification.
Only one of the provinces we interviewed, the Western Cape, attempted to implement an online safety module for students in grades 8-12 in 2020 in partnership with Google. Its adoption in schools was limited due to the COVID outbreak that same year.
Our report is the first in South Africa to survey school and university teachers on their views on the need to teach media literacy to combat the spread of disinformation online. The results are based on responses to an online survey provided by 281 educators. We also held focus groups and conducted interviews with policy makers, educators and media professionals.
We asked them how effective media literacy programs are, what is currently being taught in schools, and what challenges they see in implementing them. We also explored digital skill levels of teachers and learners, as well as barriers to wider digital access.
Our research found that educators in South Africa agreed with the statement that information literacy is important for democracy and that increasing the time spent teaching media literacy would help reduce the amount of misinformation circulating in schools (and online, in general).
A life guidance teacher we spoke to said teaching media literacy was “essential” because
we are faced with real situations every day, and children cannot identify what is real and what is false, because they do not know it.
All stakeholders included in our study, from educators at different stages of their career to policy makers and professional media researchers, agreed on the importance of media literacy. But they had different views on what exactly should be taught.
For example, high school educators were more likely to introduce learners to the use of different multimedia devices, to find reliable sources of information and to be aware of their online behavior. University professors have focused more on how to access and critically evaluate information gleaned from the media.
Online safety was also high on the list of important topics for high school teachers to cover. One of the reasons for this could be that students often face online harassment and bullying, catfishing scams (people using fake online profiles) and similar issues.
Teachers are the first line of defense against these issues in schools. Over 90% of teachers surveyed said they had seen instances of learners sharing misinformation and rumors, as seen in the image below.
Unequal access and bureaucratic processes
We found that high school media literacy training is hindered by several factors. Among these, inequalities in access to digital devices and online resources are the most important. Internet access is possible in most schools. But home access is not as widespread. Since teaching media literacy skills often involves the use of digital devices and access to the internet, these inequalities are a significant barrier.
Other obstacles include bureaucratic processes surrounding the implementation of new curricula in South African schools, lack of time and materials, and linguistic diversity in schools across the country, which would necessitate the development of educational materials. media education in different languages.
A final obstacle is the lack of training of educators on the tools and skills necessary to master the media. We found a broad consensus that not all teachers are sufficiently well equipped in media skills. Two out of five secondary school teachers think they don’t have the right training.
Most of the problems we identified seemed to occur in the five provinces studied in the report.
A way forward
We make several recommendations on how to increase the amount of media literacy taught in South African schools.
First, we caution against one-size-fits-all approaches. These are bound to fail because of differences in access and resources between schools. Care should also be taken to develop materials in the language most commonly used by learners. Materials should also be age-appropriate and refer to lived experiences in the communities where they will be used.
Second, media literacy teaching materials should place a strong emphasis on mobile phones as delivery vehicles, due to their prevalence across the country.
Third, given the bureaucratic hurdles in developing and rolling out media literacy programs across the country, ministries of education in each province should be involved in planning media literacy programs.
Finally, the involvement of educators and fact-checking organizations, who are at the forefront of the fight against misinformation, should also be a priority.