The US intelligence community released a report in March detailing how the Iranian and Russian governments orchestrated digital attacks on US social media platforms to influence the 2020 election.
According to the report, they did this by bombarding Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with fake profiles, bots and armies of trolls who would engage directly with US citizens in comment sections and deliberately attempt to foment ideological division. They also created and shared memes with misinformation and ran social media pages that perpetuated polarizing ideologies. Their mission was simply to sow division among American voters.
The implications of the report are substantial and reinforce what many media researchers have known for some time: we are vulnerable without media literacy. The digital information landscape can be difficult to navigate; it is full of pitfalls and largely unverified. Anyone can post anything online at any time.
As the total number of daily screen hours and Internet usage continues to rapidly increase, it has never been more important than now for our nation to cultivate media literacy programs. Through such education, we can better protect ourselves against unwanted influences and help ensure that future generations are well equipped to engage in the digital world.
Media literacy is defined by researchers as a person’s ability to assess, access, interpret and create various forms of media. For example, knowing how to direct message someone on Instagram, being able to upload a video to YouTube, or understanding how to use hashtags could all be part of media literacy.
At the same time, one would also learn important interpretative/critical skills such as how to double-check news sources, question the credibility of user profiles, spot scams, and manage private information on the platforms.
Overall, the goal of media literacy is to give people the tools to navigate the many communication technologies we use and how to critically analyze the many messages we receive.
Currently, this type of education does not occur everywhere in the United States. Although some legislators and individual institutions have made attempts, there are still no national standards. As a result, even states that have media literacy often lack assessment measures, rendering the curriculum inconsistent or ineffective.
Media illiteracy is a problem in all age groups. For example, researchers from Princeton and New York University found that baby boomers disproportionately share fake news. Meanwhile, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that most college students couldn’t tell the difference between a sponsored or real news article, and most students couldn’t identify biased content from independent groups. such as lobbying firms.
As a communication teacher, I have seen a lot of this first hand. Virtually all of my students use social media regularly, but few have received media literacy training.
It is clear that this problem is pervasive and affecting society now. The need for reform has never been greater. To address this need in Pennsylvania, policymakers introduced legislation aimed at cultivating K-12 media literacy. It specifically asked students to learn about the risks of sharing personal information online, how to handle cyberbullying, and responsible use of social networking sites, among other skills. The bill ultimately died in the State House Education Committee, but it was a clear first step toward bringing greater attention to media literacy in our state and in our public discourse.
As a researcher, teacher and citizen, I believe that media literacy is an important part of modern education and can benefit everyone in our community (and our nation). Like it or not, most people get all their information from the internet. If people have a question, they go to Google. If people feel lonely or bored, they go to social media. If people want to be entertained, they go to YouTube. We are constantly plugged in and the pandemic has further accelerated our immersion in the digital world.
As more and more members of society spend every waking moment staring at computers, cell phones, virtual reality devices and smart TVs, we are doing future generations a disservice by not teaching education to the media in our schools and to the rest of our community.
I’m old enough to remember a time without the internet. In elementary school, we were taught to physically use the library card catalog to find good sources of information.
Yet today, even though we get most of our information from social media, search engines and other digital platforms, we have not adapted our national education standards to meet these changes. Instead, we send our loved ones out into the digital world hoping they know what they’re doing and won’t fall victim to unwanted influences.
Through media literacy, we can stop hoping and start equipping our community to be skilled media consumers and educated citizens.
Lukas Pelliccio, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of mass communication at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and a media/communications researcher. He grew up in Lancaster County.