The UK government is developing new policies on media literacy. But what does it mean by media literacy – and where is education in its plans?
In mid-July, the UK government published its Online Media Literacy Strategy document. The Strategy is part of a broader set of initiatives relating to what it calls ‘online harms’, including a White Paper dating back to April 2019 and an Online Safety Bill, published in May of this year. Legislation is likely to follow in the coming parliamentary session.
The Strategy document includes an Action Plan, which will be updated annually over the next three years. Ofcom, the media regulator, will become the Online Safety Regulator responsible for implementing the plan, which addresses a range of ‘challenges’ and ‘priorities’. These include issues to do with the evaluation, funding and co-ordination of media literacy activities, and with the particular needs of hard-to-reach and vulnerable users.
The Culture Minister, Oliver Dowden, introduces the document by restating the government’s ambition ‘to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online’ – a rather ludicrous idea, given the global nature of the internet. His comparison between this ‘world-beating’ Strategy and desperately naff road safety campaigns from the 1970s – ‘you could call it a Green Cross Code for the internet’ – really says it all.
The Strategy amply illustrates what happens when media literacy is reduced to an element of online safety, rather than being regarded in broader educational terms. In this formulation, literacy becomes a matter of protecting oneself from harm: it is about learning ‘the skills and knowledge [users] need to stay safe online’. Imagine if we were to identify the aims of print literacy in similar terms.
In many respects, the Strategy represents the logical end-game of a longer history, which Richard Wallis and I have traced in a series of articles (for example, here and here). Nevertheless, there are some interesting shifts of focus at this point.
As the document’s title suggests, media literacy has narrowed to online media literacy. Aside from the absurdity of differentiating between online and offline media, this effectively excludes the ‘legacy’ media (notably television and the press) from attention, and absolves them from blame. Yet these media continue to play a central role in the wider culture, and to dominate public debate.
Meanwhile, the focus also appears to have shifted away from more established forms of ‘harm’: curiously, there is no mention at all of pornography, while ‘radicalisation’ and ‘grooming’ are mentioned only once and twice respectively. The overriding concerns now are to do with information and (to a somewhat lesser extent) with data. There is a broader discussion to be had about the limitations of framing the digital environment in such terms, not least because of what they exclude (such as fiction and aesthetics). But here, the conceptualisation of these issues in terms of ‘harm’ results in a particularly reductive approach.
For example, the document’s focus on mis- and dis-information relies upon a crude distinction between truth and falsehood, which was consistently evident in the debates about so-called ‘fake news’. ‘Information’ is seen here as a matter of facts: and ‘information literacy’ is just a matter of being able to ‘spot online falsehoods’. If only it were so simple.
By virtue of the focus on online media, the document implicitly presumes that this is where the problem lies. The idea that disinformation might be spread by our overwhelmingly right-wing press, by the BBC, or even by politicians themselves, doesn’t enter the picture. It’s much easier to blame those crazy conspiracy theorists on social media.
Likewise, the focus on data presents the issues primarily in terms of individual privacy, and the need to protect it. This obscures the fact that the gathering and sale of personal data is the fundamental economic mechanism by which the internet functions. Here too, the issues go far beyond questions about the apparent ‘harm’ to individuals.
If this form of ‘online media literacy’ is deemed to be the solution, how is the problem defined? The Strategy relies on a deficit model, in which users are seen to lack the key skills and knowledge they need to stay safe online. Most of the time, it seems that they just don’t know what they are doing. As Amy Orben has argued, this approach ignores the very mixed evidence on media effects and on media use. It also neglects the wider context of children’s activities, both online and offline.
Thus, the document argues that the UK has low ‘rates’ of media literacy – not the lowest in the world, but less than ‘world-beating’. Yet the evidence adduced in support of this claim is questionable, to say the least. Almost all of it comes from questionnaires in which people are invited to assess their own ‘self-efficacy’ – a notoriously unreliable approach. And so we are told that, for example, ‘just 2% of children have the critical thinking skills needed to tell fact from fiction online’. The background literature review is appropriately cautious about all this, although the main document is much more sweeping. To say the least, a little critical fact-checking might have been in order here.
Likewise, the document implicitly assumes that ‘screen time’ is a problem; and that limiting one’s screen time is an indication of media literacy. Yet it is also bound to acknowledge that some of the most ‘vulnerable’ groups (such as elderly people, or children with overly-restrictive parents) are those with the least ‘screen time’. So how much is too much? Sheer quantity is surely a meaningless measure – and potentially a very misleading one.
What role is education to play in all this? One of the most striking things about the Strategy document is the complete evacuation of formal education. The authors claim to have worked with the Department for Education, in the interests of a ‘joined-up’ approach, but schools are only discussed in a single sub-section of less than a page. As with earlier policy initiatives, the DfE still seems intent on leaving media literacy to the media regulators. Even Ofcom, in its new role as Safety Regulator, appears to have no role to play in relation to formal education.
Thus, the document’s principal focus is on ‘media literacy activities’ conducted outside educational institutions, mainly by charities and by media companies themselves (of which 170 apparently responded). With extraordinary sleight-of-hand, this is referred to as ‘the media literacy sector’ – despite there being no evidence that such activities constitute a coherent ‘sector’, or indeed that media literacy is a major concern for the disparate organisations involved. The organisations are not listed, even in the relevant background report; but it seems that formal educational institutions were not included in its terms of reference.
Most of the examples cited are run by media companies, or by charities established by media companies: Google’s ‘Be Internet Legends’, Facebook’s ‘Correct the Record’, the Economist’s ‘Burnet News Club’ and the BBC’s ‘Own It’ app are among them. Yet some of these agencies might well themselves be accused of propagating misinformation; while others clearly have public relations problems to solve. Supporting a few token media literacy activities might serve as a useful means of deflecting critical attention, and indeed of passing the buck to others.
To some extent, this focus on non-formal media education initiatives is welcome – not least because such organisations can address older age groups (although in practice the majority appear to target children in schools). I would agree with the report’s argument that these activities need to be properly evaluated and better co-ordinated. It is right to call for longer-term, more consistent funding, and for special attention to ‘hard to reach’ and potentially vulnerable groups. However, this is no substitute for a central commitment to media literacy education within the compulsory formal education system.
The short section on formal education, evidently supplied by the DfE, claims that media literacy is already included in several areas of the National Curriculum (pp. 82-3). This is, to say the least, a good example of disinformation. Of the subject areas mentioned here, media has been explicitly excluded from the subject of English; Computing is largely confined to the teaching of programming; and Citizenship has been allowed to wither away. And, as the document is bound to acknowledge, the National Curriculum does not apply to the growing number of academy schools in any case. Meanwhile, the subject of Media Studies has been ‘reformed’ by the DfE in ways that practitioners unanimously regard as extremely damaging – a factor that has certainly contributed to its current decline.
In this respect, the contrast between this document and the equivalent report recently published in Finland – which I discussed here – is quite shocking. For the Finnish government, formal education is absolutely central to its media literacy strategy, and there are some strong provisions not only for curriculum but also for teachers’ professional development.
What kind of learning might be on offer here? From the background reports, it’s clear that the survey questions about ‘media literacy activity’ respondents were offered were entirely focused on risk: the ‘issue areas’ they were invited to check off are all to do with recognising, preventing, challenging and avoiding ‘harmful’ practices. This is astonishingly reductive. The notion of media education as a matter of empowerment or creativity or broader critical thinking – which I suspect would be espoused by many ‘informal’ media education organisations – just isn’t on the agenda.
To be sure, the Strategy does pay lip service to the idea of ‘critical evaluation’, but it is a form of critical evaluation that is entirely focused on safety. Framing media literacy in terms of avoiding ‘harm’ results in an extremely narrow conception of what users need to know and understand about online media. Of course, we do need to know how to adjust our privacy settings; we need to appreciate the risks of sharing data; we need to understand how algorithms work, and the role of commercial forces online; we need to recognise how language and images can be manipulated, and know what to do when we encounter false or abusive content. But as far as the Strategy is concerned, that appears to be the beginning and end of media literacy.
What’s self-evidently missing here are the broader questions that media educators have always asked – questions about the social, cultural and political dimensions of media. One element of media literacy that is evident even in Ofcom’s definition is that of creative production, but this too is framed here entirely in terms of safety: it’s a matter of being ‘respectful and kind’ to people online, rather than hateful or abusive. It’s quite extraordinary, in the section on mis-and dis-information, to see the resurgence of the idea of media literacy as ‘inoculation’ – an approach that was challenged and largely superseded by educators more than fifty years ago.
This is essentially an individualistic strategy: it’s about cultivating ‘resilience’ on the part of users, rather than addressing broader problems in the media landscape. Media literacy becomes a means of avoiding regulation, and ‘responsibilising’ individuals instead. To be sure, there is some nebulous reference here to a ‘duty of care’ that is to be imposed on media companies. There is also a section on what is called ‘literacy by design’ – although in practice this comes down to a matter of ‘safety by design’. The aim here is for companies to make it easier for users to avoid harm – for example by flagging up ‘damaging’ content, putting accessible reporting mechanisms in place, and warning users against ‘excessive’ screen time. The difficulties in defining ‘harm’, let alone providing evidence of it, suggest that this may be significantly more challenging than the government imagines.
Internet safety is undoubtedly part of media literacy. But media literacy is a much broader matter. As I’ve argued elsewhere, calls for internet safety are typically driven by those with other moral axes to grind, and are based on spurious assumptions about young people and about learning. The ‘harms’ that are apparently at stake here are merely one aspect of much broader changes in the contemporary social and cultural environment. Enabling young people to understand those changes is a key imperative for education. Yet as it’s conceived here, media literacy would seem exceptionally ill-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead.