The UK Online Safety Bill, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in May 2021 and currently under the control of a select parliamentary committee, aims to establish a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online. Here, LSE Professor Lee Edwards analyzes how media literacy is presented in the Bill and suggests how the Bill’s proposals could be strengthened.
In the Online Safety Bill, media literacy is an important part of raising awareness of harmful content and potentially giving users of online services strategies to recognize and counter misinformation. Although questions have been raised about its presentation in the Bill and the assumptions it makes about Ofcom’s capabilities, the provisions extend Ofcom’s obligations relating to media literacy – previously set out in the Communications Act 2003 – in three important ways. These new obligations are:
- Encourage the development of technologies that enable users to identify misinformation and control the information they receive;
- To “carry out, commission or encourage educational initiatives” that support media literacy;
- Prepare guidelines for the evaluation of media literacy initiatives.
The new obligations help to clarify some of the more general provisions of the previous law (for example, by clarifying how to interpret the “nature and characteristics” of content, and how the idea of knowledge and understanding is to be interpreted). They give Ofcom more power to influence both organizational governance and media literacy investments, as well as to shape media literacy curricula. As such, they enhance the regulator’s potential to affirm the value of media literacy among media producers and those who support user engagement with media.
However, the new bill also includes a subtle but crucial wording change, moving from an obligation to improve the awareness and understanding of the “public” to the media, to a better awareness of “members of the public”. The first obliges Ofcom to improve our collective levels of media literacy and critical engagement with media content, while the second is an obligation to improve individual levels of media literacy.
The wording change is consistent with the focus on individual harms throughout the bill and certainly facilitates the requirement to assess media literacy – it is easier to measure outcomes in terms of behaviors and of individual capacities than to identify collective empowerment. However, the adjustment risks sacrificing one of the key benefits of media literacy: its ability to support an informed and engaged population ready to participate in deliberations and debates in our democratic processes. While that may not be the intention behind the change, the effect is inevitable when media literacy is baked into a bill primarily focused on regulating platforms and providers.
In addition, more specific interpretations of “technologies and systems” that enhance media literacy aim to facilitate users’ ability to identify types of content, determine its reliability and accuracy, and control how they receive information. These emphases prioritize the ability to detect disinformation, rather than the ability to engage critically with the media more broadly. Yet media literacy interventions that can contribute to critical thinking and evaluation most often take a systemic approach: they include learning about how media is produced and consumed, understanding media industries, media and their power and their institutional priorities, the critique of media representations and the development of the capacity to create media. Fostering this type of media literacy can have a positive effect on our ability to actively engage with online information, the power of media and to recognize our own voices as citizens. The bill risks turning this capacity-building literacy into an exercise in informed consumption. If media literacy is deployed alone as a mode of self-protection from exploitation or harm, its potential to support our deliberative and democratic capacities could be severely weakened.
Both of these issues point to a more fundamental problem with the bill: its focus on users rather than citizens, and on mitigating individual rather than collective harms. Yet the bill focuses on issues that directly affect our collective well-being. Living in a society where information and knowledge remain balanced, reliable and accessible to all, or where our desire to communicate our experiences is not tempered by fears of hatred and intolerance, is in all of our interests. Harm occurs not only when individuals are harmed by online interactions, but also when those same interactions escalate, ultimately reducing our critical capacities and generating antagonistic arguments rather than agonistic debate in society. We have already seen the results of this kind of polarization in increased nationalism, the commodification of misinformation and the dismissal of experts, and a gradual weakening of democratic arrangements that rely on engaged and informed citizens.
Despite this, the bill imagines users primarily as atomized individuals rather than social beings living in relation to each other. The media literacy corollary suggested by the bill is that collective benefits are contingent on individual resilience. If this framing of media literacy becomes the dominant mode of transmission, there is a danger that the perception of its wider value to society will gradually dissipate. While critical analysis of the power of platforms is desperately needed on the part of all citizens, the instrumentalization of media literacy is at best concerning and at worst dangerous – potentially leading to further political polarization and a even weaker resilience to misinformation than we currently have.
There are options to mitigate this danger:
- The wording of the bill could be changed back to “public” rather than “members of the public”, for example.
- The bill’s specifications could be expanded to include the broader critical capabilities that are so fundamental to our deliberative engagement.
However, claims about the need to support social well-being and media literacy would be more strongly made under digital rights, and the lack of such rights is a more fundamental problem with the bill.
During our summer roundtable, Professor Sonia Livingstone and MP Chi Onwurah both made a strong case for the inclusion of an explicit digital rights bill in the bill, as a foundation for online safety. . Even if these rights are not included in the final version, they are undoubtedly necessary. The intensive discussions around citizenship, media literacy, duties of care and the need to protect freedom of expression have all arisen in part because we lack a framework in which these issues can be referenced. in a digital world. Existing human rights declarations are difficult to transpose as they are into digital contexts, due to the altered environment in which they exist. Digital rights have to contend with the different architectures, actors and networked dynamics of digital spaces, and are not easy to sort out – as the long process of developing UN General Comment 25 on Human Rights has shown. of the child in relation to the digital environment. But our digital rights must be considered by both civil society and politicians, if initiatives such as the Online Safety Bill are to be legitimate, future-proof and, ultimately , successfully implemented, and whether the societal value of media literacy should be preserved.