Beyond ‘fake news’: disinformation and digital literacy

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What does the new UK government report on fake news and disinformation have to say about ‘digital literacy’?

Last week, the UK government published a major report on disinformation and ‘fake news’. Produced by a parliamentary select committee, including members from both the main political parties, it was the outcome of two years of deliberation. A large amount of verbal and written evidence was presented to the committee, much of which can be found online. The enquiry also involved consultation and collaboration with international partners, including what it modestly calls an ‘International Grand Committee’, which met in late 2018.

Originally convened in the wake of early debates about ‘fake news’, the committee was given additional impetus by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the other revelations of electoral malpractice that have followed in its wake. Significantly, this led the committee to widen its brief from ‘fake news’ to ‘disinformation and “fake news”’: the scare quotes here are in the report’s own title.

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To some extent, this widening of the brief reflects the way the debate has been hi-jacked. In a situation where one of the leading purveyors of fake news – and indeed of lies and false promises – routinely uses this term to condemn his opponents, we seem to have reached an impasse. Yet the claim that we live in a ‘post-truth’ world, in which various ‘alternative facts’ compete for attention, is rather too easy. In some instances the truth is contentious, but this doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no truth at all.

Even so, the term ‘fake news’ may well have gone past its sell-by date. ‘Disinformation’ refers to a much broader and more pervasive phenomenon, which the report defines as follows: ‘the deliberate creating and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to mislead and deceive audiences, either for the purpose of causing harm, or for political, personal, or financial gain.’

This report is part of an ongoing process. The committee’s interim report, published last July, was followed by a response from the government (of which more below). This final report will lead towards a White Paper, which will define future policy and identify potential legislation in the area. In this post, I’ll give a quick critical outline of the main emphases of the report, but I want to focus on what it says (and doesn’t say) in its final chapter about ‘digital literacy’.

 

Defining the problem

Despite occasionally falling back on some rather tired rhetoric about democracy and human rights, the report contains some clear, concrete proposals, and a good deal of useful information. It makes a strong case for increasing the regulation of digital media platforms, in order to ensure transparency, to improve accountability, and to minimize potential harm. It calls for stricter enforcement of data protection laws, clearer policies on political advertising, and for the prevention of monopolies. It argues that companies should be more open about their operations, and the algorithms they use. It also proposes that they should be required to remove potentially harmful content – although personally I’m not persuaded that the issue of disinformation is best understood in terms of ‘harm’, or considered alongside rather different arguments about mental health.

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Source: Guardian newspaper

The large bulk of the report is given over to the discussion of how social media operate, primarily in relation to electoral politics. In the process, the issue of ‘fake news’ rather disappears from view. There is a lengthy discussion of Facebook’s business model, and of some of its more dishonest and deceptive practices. This leads into an account of the gathering and selling of personal data for political campaigns; and then to an analysis of foreign interference in elections. Specific cases that are described in detail include Cambridge Analytica and its various associated companies; the use of data by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum; as well as lesser-known examples such as Six4Three and Aggregate IQ. At times, it seems as though the authors of the report have become caught up in a kind of digital detective story: leaked emails sent within and between these various companies are reproduced in full, alongside detailed accounts of who said what to whom and when. The narrative is sometimes convoluted and difficult to follow.

While some of these activities are now the subject of legal prosecution, it is the behemoth of Facebook that is the major target in view. Indeed, the executive summary almost gives the impression that this will be a report primarily about Facebook: no other companies are mentioned, and at times it seems that Facebook is synonymous with digital or social media, and indeed with the spreading of disinformation and ‘fake news’. This almost vindictive obsession partly derives from the fact that Facebook treated the committee with such contempt: the report notes several times that Mark Zuckerberg declined its invitations to appear before it, and sent less well-informed minions instead. In a line that was much quoted in the press coverage, the report even refers to Zuckerberg and his cronies as ‘digital gangsters’.

mark-zuckerberg-halloween-mask-devilI have no wish to defend Facebook. Indeed, if anyone’s looking for any further reasons why they should immediately delete their Facebook account, there are plenty of them here. However, focusing so inexorably on Facebook – and effectively ignoring the role of other companies in this space such as Google, Apple and Amazon – is to lose sight of the bigger picture. Currently, Facebook itself seems to be teetering on the brink of a decline, at least among younger users: it may well go the way of MySpace. What’s needed here is a more comprehensive understanding of how digital and social media operate within the broader media landscape.

 

The place of ‘digital literacy’

The notion of digital literacy emerges as a kind of deus ex machina in the final three pages of the report – although if it is indeed a god, it seems to be rather less than all-powerful, especially in the face of the global conspiracies the report has outlined. To be fair, the report isn’t suggesting that digital literacy is some kind of magical solution on its own: developing critical understanding of media is presented as an accompaniment to regulation, not an alternative to it (as I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog).

Report coverIt’s hard to disagree with the report’s basic position here. It stresses the need for ‘greater public understanding of digital information – its use, scale, importance and influence’. It argues that both children and adults need skills in critical analysis, as well as a better understanding of their digital rights, especially in relation to personal data. It calls on regulators, including Ofcom (the Office for Communication) and the Advertising Standards Authority, to collaborate on a more united digital literacy strategy.

Significantly, it also proposes that there should be a ‘comprehensive educational framework’ for digital literacy, developed by charities, NGOs and regulators (although notably not by educators) and based online. This should be funded by an ‘educational levy’, a tax on the turnover on social media companies. More radically, although somewhat more vaguely, it also proposes that digital literacy ‘should be a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths’.

Interestingly, the government has already rejected this latter proposal. In its response to the committee’s interim report, it claimed that digital literacy ‘is already taught across the national school curriculum’. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is itself a piece of disinformation. It makes Mark Zuckerberg look like a paragon of honesty.

Over the past few years, the government has explicitly excluded teaching about media (including digital media) from the core curriculum subject of English. Any critical discussion of the social and political dimensions of digital media is utterly marginalized in the new curriculum for computing, which is essentially about teaching computer programming. And (as readers of this blog will know) Media Studies – which is centrally concerned with critical media literacy – has been seriously undermined by the government’s recent curriculum reforms.

‘Digital literacy’ is also a problematic term. Personally, I see no reason whatsoever to distinguish between digital media and other media in this respect. The technological dimension (digital or analogue) is irrelevant: we should be talking about media literacy, not digital literacy. Nor am I especially convinced by the focus on information: literacy is surely about more than retrieving and evaluating ‘information’, and indeed about assessing the validity of ‘fake news’.

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Teaching materials largely on pre-digital news: still relevant and available from http://www.englishandmedia.co.uk

However, the kind of literacy the report is calling for is not merely a matter of technical skill: it’s not just about knowing how to use equipment or software tools, or even to write computer code (which is what most people assume ‘digital literacy’ to mean). It is a form of critical literacy, which involves understanding how these media work, and making informed judgments about how they represent the world.

This kind of critical thinking has been entirely marginalized by government education policy over the past several decades, in favour of a spurious emphasis on factual knowledge. Teaching critical thinking isn’t easy or straightforward; and there is a risk that it can reinforce a kind of lazy cynicism. This is especially problematic when it comes to teaching about ‘fake news’. However, media educators do have a very long history of teaching about precisely these issues, across a range of media – not that you would know it from reading this report…

 

Making change

Is this report likely to produce meaningful change? When it comes to education, I’m afraid my glass is less than half full. The report adds weight to growing calls for ‘digital literacy’, which are coming from a wide range of sources; and the case for a systematic, comprehensive approach to teaching all children about media seems ever more urgent. However, as an old-timer in the field, I feel as though this is something I have been saying for ever, and I’m less than optimistic that it will come to pass.

When it comes to regulation, the report does provide an unusually forthright critique of the power of big data companies (although one wishes that it would look beyond its obsession with Facebook). However, we have been here before as well. The government’s Leveson Enquiry, prompted by the phone-hacking scandal, pointed to astonishing levels of illegality, corruption and unethical behaviour on the part of the British press – and indeed to collusion between the press, the police and politicians. However, since that report, very little has changed. The government cancelled the second Leveson Enquiry, which would have considered the broader issues at stake; the new press regulator has been ridiculed and ignored; and most newspapers continue to hide behind a sham of self-regulation, in the form of the so-called ‘Independent’ Press Standards Organisation.

As I’ve argued in an earlier post, regulation of social media poses particular problems. The notion of ‘free speech’ covers a multitude of sins, but it remains a genuine concern. Distinguishing between ‘fake’ and ‘true’ isn’t straightforward, either in the context of regulation or of education. The extent to which national government can regulate global corporations is also highly questionable. The pressure for regulation is certainly growing, but it’s hard to see how the genie can ever be put back inside the bottle.