The Marine Corps wants to expand media literacy training. It won’t be easy

Inside the latest Marine Corps doctrinal release is a hint of a new initiative – one focused on grassroots media literacy training.

The term “media literacy” appears six times in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 8 – Information, published in June. Robust training for this purpose is necessary, the document’s authors say, both to preserve the resilience of the force and to deny attacks from enemy influence based on misinformation.

The document illustrates the power of media literacy in a one-page vignette depicting the Myanmar military’s weaponization of social and digital media propaganda against the country’s Rohingya Muslim population. These disinformation efforts included creating fake user accounts and celebrity pages to spread messages promoting violence and falsely warning of impending attacks.

More recently, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has highlighted the need to effectively assess and interpret information; both sides used public statements and published photos and other media to try to sway public opinion and thus gain an advantage.

“No individual can fully know or understand the breadth of available information that amplifies cognitive shortcuts, biases and assumptions,” the document states. “However, media literacy inculcates a necessary level of critical thinking in daily interactions with digital and traditional news and information environments. Effective training in this area reduces Marines’ vulnerabilities to malign influence and supports force resilience through unity of effort.

However, how the Corps plans to provide this training, who will receive it, and what it will cover are open questions.

In a media roundtable prior to the release of MCDP-8, Deputy Information Commander Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy described the training as something that would take place in a “school circle” with a squad or a platoon of Marines after an exercise or other major training.

“These are the most powerful opportunities for leaders to instill in these Marines, not just the lessons of the actions they just took, but really life lessons,” Glavy said. “The Marines, following these types of difficult events, are really kind of in that absorption mode…the mind is open to learning.”

Eric Schaner, a senior Marine Corps information and policy strategist who co-authored the document, made it clear that this effort is in its infancy.

“More to follow on this, but it’s extremely important that our Marines are proficient in the use of social media and discern and discern what is being made of fiction,” he said.

In a follow-up conversation in July, officials told the Marine Corps Times that Marine Corps Communications Strategy and Operations, which handles public affairs and media engagement, had been tasked with developing training and that a planning team was being assembled to take the effort from there. It remains to be determined, officials said, who would receive the training, how it would be administered and what it would cover.

The timeframe for setting up a training program or module also remains to be determined.

While no other service has a formal media literacy training program, officials noted that the move was not completely unexpected. Several previous iterations of the defense budget bill have called on the Department of Defense to provide annual training to troops and civilians to make them resilient to disinformation and foreign influence.

The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023 would expand annual cybersecurity awareness training to include a digital literacy module regarding “digital citizenship, media literacy, and protection against cyber threats.

The bill defines media literacy as the ability to do the following:

  • Access relevant and accurate information through media in various forms.
  • Critically analyze media content and the influences of different forms of media/
  • Assess information for completeness, relevance, credibility, authority and accuracy.
  • Make informed decisions based on information obtained from media and digital sources.
  • Leverage various forms of technology and digital tools.
  • And consider how the use of media and technology can affect the private and the public.

This is a very good place to start, according to Renee Hobbs, a leading researcher in the field of media education and professor at the University of Rhode Island. Hobbs spoke to Marine Corps Times by phone from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans while attending a propaganda educators’ workshop.

A crucial aspect of media literacy, Hobbs said, was developing an understanding that public and media messages are always selective and incomplete.

Interpretation, she says, is also subjective. Thus, the task is more complex than sorting reports and news sources into “good” and “bad”.

“In more democratic organizations, where people sit around a table and can freely share their opinions, we can learn to respect our differences,” she said. “And we can, in fact, benefit from hearing from people who have very different interpretations of each other. Media literacy really cultivates respect for differences in multi-perspective thinking and respect for complexity.

A “train the trainer” model works well to help members of an organization become more media savvy, she said, because it’s important that understanding and buy-in develop at the top.

Media literacy principles, she added, should be integrated throughout training, rather than siloed in a single course or event. After all, Hobbs said, media literacy isn’t just about news articles or Facebook posts; even the maps must be understood and interpreted according to what they include or omit.

Where the Marine Corps might struggle to embrace media literacy as a perspective, Hobbs said, is where the police departments she trained also struggled: developing a culture of transparency where members have some freedom to share their own views.

“Talking about how media messages are selective and incomplete also means recognizing that the media messages our leaders provide to us are selective and incomplete,” she said. “And so the implications of this great concept of media literacy are sometimes complicated in hierarchical organizations.”

Despite the difficulty, she said, media literacy can contribute to greater combat effectiveness. Media-savvy Marines will be more attentive to media messages designed to trigger emotions and circumvent critical thinking.

And, she added, they can also better understand how others might interpret and react to situations differently than they do.

“If I am in Afghanistan and I deal with a local on the ground, I can be sensitive to the fact that their interpretation of a particular situation can be very different from mine, their interpretation of the symbolic environment can be very different from mine,” she said. “And I can be really curious about it, and interested in it, and be able to use it tactically, to achieve my strategic goals.”

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