During the last week of October 2021, the UN-sponsored Global Media and Information Week in South Africa, with the participation of India, resolved to tackle disinformation by improving the capacity people to counter it. Nothing could better position media education in the era of the right to information than its function of demystifying information processes for the general public. But a pandemic or an election cannot define the contours of what media literacy should offer.
The concept of media literacy dates back more than eight decades, but it was not until 1992 that a national leadership conference bringing together academics and high-level decision-makers in the United States discussed its academic relevance. .
Several American high schools have since adopted media literacy as a subject. In 2019, accelerated by the machinations of then-President Donald Trump, the US Congress passed the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act (DCMLA) to “promote digital citizenship and media literacy,” defining education to the media in terms of access, analysis, evaluation, decision-making, technological ease and broader thinking. As the Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the flaws in the modern flow and reception of messages, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for action against the ‘infodemic’. This year, Illinois became the first U.S. state to mandate media literacy in its public high schools. Researchers are still debating whether media literacy should be more ‘critical’ and encourage and empower learners, for example, to question the media and mainstream sources of information. These efforts are supported by several independent initiatives to promote media literacy among the general public.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has jumped on participating in global media literacy discussions this year as a key country in piloting South Africa’s resolution. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur told a roundtable in September this year that “as the world battles the pandemic… [it] It is important that the issue of infodemia be addressed at the highest level ”(emphasis added). He went on to say that India has dealt with fake news and disinformation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic swiftly through “clear communication based on science and facts.” He cited daily press briefings as fashion.
When governments assume this responsibility, questions arise: Will government interpretations of media literacy help us draw important isobars between communication rights and responsibilities, between freedoms and public awareness? Will we also learn about the role of government “official sources” in information management? Are governments likely to appropriate media education for political gain? Is it likely that a government sponsored media literacy program will address these issues? Even through Mr. Thakur’s assertions about informing the public in a scientific and transparent manner, has the government informed citizens of the difference between the realities on the ground and the positive effects?
During the first and second waves of Covid-19 in India, official sources seized the opportunity to outline media agendas downplaying the severity of the pandemic, often focusing on politico-nationalist rather than national agendas: How the government broke records in vaccinations and how Indian manufacturers and innovators “turned the pandemic into an opportunity” and developed a local ventilator industry. Without vigilant sections of the national and international media, it was unlikely that we would know of the plight of invisible groups such as migrant workers and large rural communities. Extracting official statistics and making them accessible to the public has been difficult for the media even though the government denies independent data which can be troublesome.
Pavlovian experiences such as ship bang calls resulted in widespread spread of superstition.
In India and many other countries where media literacy is still in its infancy, the discourse is still largely basic. For example, a media education experiment teaches students how to use media as a learning tool in school; another experiment around the dissemination of false information encourages learners to go through the elaborate and proactive process of fact-checking. A learner may be forced to learn the tool and not feel the need to perform more qualitative and critical tasks. There is a big gap in high school and college programs to help students use media posts and create posts for social media. At the heart of media literacy is the influence of media messages – not those that are made invisible.
Viewing media education as a public good is laudable, and providing accurate, transparent and scientific information should be the primary task of a government. Dispelling untruths is noble – as long as we agree on what untruth is. But the government’s participation in international forums comes in an environment where any substantial discussion in India about media literacy is absent. Indeed, with its comprehensive statement that media education should be addressed at the highest levels, the government has aggressively anticipated any such discussion. A counter-argument that needs to be heard is that the legislation and framing of media education must be debated and debated, and must be open to approaches as delicate as the authenticity of official sources.
Media “prosumers” are constantly consuming and producing posts and communicating en masse on social media. This new medium is amphibious, where the messages of the so-called mainstream media collide, collaborate with the opinions of users and amplify their influence. The users of amphibious media – writers and editors in their own right – now act as decision-makers of the public and media agenda. Most of us have never received formal training in how to communicate en masse, let alone how to communicate with the freedoms and responsibilities that come with our citizenship. In this amphibious space, articulate speech is king.
How can we access and assess data that is not available to the media and the public? Can media literacy inform citizens about messages they do not see? Media narratives agree with government narratives, especially in nationalist environments and particularly in crises. In the hyper-nationalistic environment we live in, official sources have the access, influence, and power that independent sources often don’t. Publicized nationalism can confuse the truths with the articulations of government. This is why we often face a “rural blind spot” among our English-speaking TV news channels, for example. Invisibility is very beneficial for nationalism, a powerful tool in national branding, and of course in politics. What you can’t see, you don’t have to understand. Herein lies the problem with current interpretations of media literacy.