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What is Media Literacy?The same way we learn how to read and write text, we can learn how to interpret online content. Reading and writing are, in one way, tools for consuming and producing content, but in private. Media is the means of mass dissemination of this content. And to communicate with large amounts of people, several different avenues can be used, like radio, print publications, and the internet. Internet media is disseminated through websites, and these websites are platforms for media content. This content has an address: a link. Once we have the ability to read and write (which is literacy), we have the ability to consume and produce media in platforms with massive audiences (media literacy). Media literacy isn’t widely taught, though, not just in the internet era. We aren’t generally taught how books are published, radios are broadcasted, or how websites are built. This knowledge was often reserved for professionals in these fields, until social media democratized mass distribution of personal content (for better or for worse). Now more than ever, media literacy is a necessity for all people, of all ages. Below you will find a short course, consisting of a checklist on what to look for when consuming online content. The output of those who filled out this checklist is presented collectively in the ‘results’ section, with graphs, maps, and databases. Through this process, we train ourselves to look for relevant information, and see our individual consumption of online content in a broader context – the global online context in which we find ourselves. FORM RESULTS
THE HISTORYSince the invention of the German printing press in the 15th century, which birthed the method of reproducing media on a large scale and revolutionized the consumption of information in the West, there has been false news. It was very common for these false news to be directed towards a marginalized contingent of society, such as Jewish, indigenous and black peoples. Sometimes, atrocities committed by ‘undesirable’ members of society were made up. Other times, atrocities committed by ‘desirable’ members of society were omitted. In other words, deceptive media is one that not only lies, but also omits truthful information. Because of the continued presence of falsehood in the media over the past five centuries, many journalists like to say that ‘fake news’ is not new – but it is. The term ‘fake news’ says more about the media age in which we find ourselves, than the practice of disseminating misinformation. False information has always circulated through media, but today it circulates in a particular way, with the use of new technological tools, such as social media boosts and bots. In the first half of the 20th century, the first Brazilian ‘media baron’, Assis Chateaubriand, threatened to ruin the reputations of people and companies with false news in exchange for money (essentially blackmail). Today, technological advances significantly changed the format in which these false news get disseminated, and by whom. What’s App, Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Instagram are explosive and unprecedented formats of disseminating media. Most people are able to produce media content, and most of those who can, do it constantly. When we see news on one of these platforms, we also see who and how many people reacted to it, which influences not only what we feel about the news, but also about the others who consume it – all instantly. We can believe or stop believing something depending on who or how many people ‘shared it’ or ‘liked it’. In terms of ‘who’, it’s enough for a famous or credible person to believe and ‘share it’ for “the bewildered herd” (From Chomsky in Media Control) to follow. This is where ‘influencers’ come in. It terms of ‘how many’, a high number of shares helps the post reach a wider audience by appearing relevant to social media algorithms and to the people seeing it. That’s where bots come in. Here is an example of false news. Here (Abcnews.com.co) is an example of ‘fake news.’ One comes from a platform that still exists and lied. It’s an example of bad journalism. The other (Abcnews.com.co) doesn’t even exist as a platform, it pretends to be something it isn’t. We would not find this link by searching for it on our own, it is created to be believable on Facebook, as an ad. ‘Fake news’ sites have the specific purpose of buying ads on social media. [Note that I didn’t use a hyperlink for the fake news site, because I don’t want it as a backlink or as part of their PageRank.]
THE TRUTHThe starting point of truth is our subjectivity, it depends on each one’s perspective. All media produced by someone is a result of that person’s subjectivity. It’s necessary to be in contact with our own subjectivity, in order to be able to discern the veracity of what others produce. More important than finding answers, is asking the right questions. It’s okay if you can’t find the answers to all questions. The important thing is the process of research, because sometimes not finding the answer is valuable information in itself. Is the platform being as transparent as it could be? Lie or Deception? A lie is when, for example, an author invents information. An author can be deceptive or misleading without inventing anything. They may select truthful information, omit another piece of information, place these pieces out of context, and use sensational tools to provoke certain emotions in the audience. Generally, media literacy courses focus on how to identify objective and neutral journalistic language. This, however, does not exist. It is not always easy to discern sensational and misleading tools from effective or creative methods of delivering information to an audience. Some identifiable tools, even if subjective, are: – Dramatic music. – Shocking images and words. – Exclamation points. – Titles that cause fear, and pass on little information. – Titles that speak directly to you. Focusing on a guideline or checklist on how to identify ‘fake news’ can make us even more vulnerable to them. These guidelines can become new, effective tools for their dissemination. For example, if I say to you: “only trust newspapers that do not use exclamation points on titles,” this guideline can be used by any deceitful platform to gain your trust. A much stronger tool than memorizing identifiable ‘fake news’ characteristics is to have a clear sense of your own values, and political goals. ‘Fake News’, ‘bots’ and people with an interest in using these tools to steer the behavior of a wide audience, target ‘influenceable’ and undecided people. That doesn’t necessarily mean people who are on the fence about a subject. Dogmatic people are as easy to influence, because their reference of truth is outside themselves. That’s why the search for your own truth is fundamental to make ‘fake news’ ineffective, which is the most effective way to combat it. Thought, speech, and action should be one, as should your ideas, what you share with others and how you live your life. This is an exercise in balance – being open to learning new things, while not losing sight of your own truth and lived experiences.
THE AUDIENCEWhen we produce media, we think of a target audience so that we can make it effective in delivering the message. A newspaper, for example, has an audience, and the values of each one of them exist in symbiosis. The media literacy process involves the analysis of the values of the institutions and/or people that produce media, based on the recognition of our own values as an audience. Many people who produce media on the internet are not honest, or transparent, about what their values and intentions are. There are media tactics that aim to manipulate a specific audience, that use tools that provoke targeted emotions. Art also aims to provoke emotions; academic writing is intended to be verifiable and validated. These are tools that can be used in ways that are subtle, exaggerated, effective, manipulative, untruthful, misleading, etc. Our analysis of how these tools are used depends on our understanding of how we use them ourselves, and why. What constitutes content accessible to the general public? For content to be accessible, it needs to be able to reach the audience it sets out to reach. For example, for a video to reach an Instagram audience, it needs to last a maximum of one minute, because this is (or was) the limitation of the platform visited by that audience. How to identify whether a text aims to reach a lay audience, and not just a specialized one? A person who is not specialized and has no interest in specializing in a certain area of study will spend less time reading about this subject. So, for texts to reach this audience, they must be short. Short online texts do not need an abstract, summary, numbered sections, etc. A long text is not necessarily inaccessible. Another way of identifying the level of accessibility is to recognize excessive citations/references, usually redirecting the reader to other, even longer, academic texts. Academic requirements reflect the audience that the author intended to reach. Specific acronyms and terms have the same function. To reach a lay audience, terms must be defined, and acronyms that aren’t widespread in popular culture must be spelled out the first time they are mentioned. FBI or CIA, for example, are not acronyms that need to be spelled out, but NCI does.
GLOSSARYAudience (in media) – “A media audience may be as small as one person reading a magazine or as large as billions of people around the world watching events, like 9/11, unfold live on television. Audiences have a complex relationship with the products they consume.” (New Zealand’s Ministry of Education) ‘Bot’ (on social media) – “is an agent that communicates more or less autonomously on social media, often with the task of influencing the course of discussion and/or the opinions of its readers. It is related to chatbots but mostly only uses rather simple interactions or no reactivity at all.” (Wikipedia) Dogma – “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” (Oxford Languages) ‘Fake News’ – “is a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media or online social media.” (Wikipedia) Media – “the main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing, and the Internet) regarded collectively.” (Oxford Languages) Sensationalism – “(especially in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.” (Oxford Languages) Social Media – “websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.” (Oxford Languages)
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