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Next steps for tackling fake news and improving media literacy

Morning, Thursday, 31st March 2022

Westminster Media Forum policy conference

By Brian Mulligan, executive member of The MEA

Here I present a brief overview of the event with commentary around how this might affect us as Media teachers.

90% of the focus was on the shared (‘stakeholder’) aim ie Media literacy - the definition of which appears to be open to many motivations and interpretations and less than 10% on the means by which this might be achieved, ie. Media Education.

Reflecting the MEA focus (“In particular there is a need for a broader and more comprehensive conception of media literacy; and for much greater recognition of the central role of education in this respect”), Professor of Social Psychology Department of Media and Communications at LSE Sonia Livingstone’s contributions are most pertinent. She brought an academic, critical questioning approach to the subject as opposed to the business pitches of Twitter, Youtube, Ofcom, DCMS. I get the inclusion of the first two, and the DCMS rep was a Civil servant answering to Nadine Dorries, but the third was a surprise until I heard the news that Michael Grade - the 79 year old digital refusenik will be the Ofcom chair.

Sonia Livingstone asked why the chapter on media literacy appears to have disappeared from the Online Harms Bill. She is incredibly pessimistic about the future of regulation. On children and the shortcomings of the Online Harms bill she feels it is too easy to fall into an either/or model for external government vs self regulation principles. Crucially for education, if we identify key skills of media literacy for schools that need to be a part of the curriculum - media studies? - then that brings with it huge implications for investment, recruitment and initial teacher training/ INSET. There is of course a long and good tradition of this in schools already with MS teaching?

Coming from the majority perspective, Claire Gail, a reputation management specialist and partner at Carter Ruck, began by praising the UK’s ‘thriving independent media’ and the desire to protect ‘good journalism’. She wants to teach young people to be ‘discerning’, consider ‘bias’ and ‘sources’ in ‘news media’. There is a subject that tackles all of these and it is Media Studies not PSHE. She further asserts that she wants content moderation by the platforms with a robust complaints procedure. Such a corporate/ legal centred approach underpinned much of the conference. Twitter’s Katie Minchall outlined their tools to tackle fake news which I am sure we have all seen; Read the Article First - research shows many pause and some decide not to retweet, Revise your reply prompt and app searches for ‘offensive’ language - research shows the same impact. You will read a similar defence from Youtube below.

We teachers should be grateful then for academic research. Rebecca Helm (Evidence-Based Justice Lab at the University of Exeter) demonstrated that information correction tools can draw more attention to the original story - eg. quoted/ replied to more often; this can polarise debate even further. She terms this the ‘backfire effect’ attracting more attention to the story eg. when Reddit tries to remove content. On this theme, Pinelopi Troullinou of Trilateral Research commented that media literacy by design would include the Tech Companies researching/ predicting what might happen as Tech develops rather than ignoring it as they have done up until now. Social media businesses could do far more - including changing their business plan away from attention economy/surveillance practices. Cultivating skills of literacy needs economic contexts too ( It’s beginning to look a lot like Media Studies now). One interesting proposal from her is shifting the culture of likes to trust - eg. trust button indicating a plausible source - class debate?

To move away from the academia vs business narrative, there was some very useful input from Lyric Jain of Logically. He was very interested in trying to penetrate closed groups and messenger apps to fact check them eg. Whatsapp (where users have requested fact checks) then share the fact check within their groups. The speed of response is crucial. On Covid 19 and Bots he presented a case where a prominent individual (official) figure commented on vaccine rollout - 80% of trolling/attacks came from inauthentic accounts (I have seen recent work on Zaghari-Ratcliffe trolled for ‘not being grateful enough’). Crucially, their posts on other topics attracted no such comment.

Youtube’s Ian Burden claims that contrary to popular opinion they do not want to share mis/disinformation but create a positive, shared experience. He claims there is a shared agenda and we should be positive in welcoming a tough but transparent regulator. He wants to build resilience and skills, a learning agenda via investment. The company works hard to be responsible - it has removed 7m accounts worldwide cos of people lying about their age (a quick check reveals 2.3bn users - any maths teacher could do the percentage but my guess is it’s a very small one).

On to the Ofcom 'deep dive' (of course) with Claire Levens - small, highly selected sample: extrapolated to assert that 25% of adults reject MSM. These rejectors see certain groups as under threat from misinformation however this does not apply to them. They find any form of intervention problematic - confirming government censorship (Deep state?). Confirming intervention is part of the mainstream agenda to silence them - or conspiracy. Ofcom does publish principles of best practice for media companies which are claimed to be very impactful. DCMS Declan Shaw - Research shows 150 organisations in the UK working in this area (Cameron’s big society creates free for all?) then it's on to ‘challenges, resilience, evaluation, skills’ etc. The bill will give Ofcom enhanced ‘tools’, ‘transparency’ etc. All countries are still learning how to deal with this (that sounds like a familiar argument). This whole light touch/ self regulation, almost congratulation - reminds me of the FCA and banks pre 2008 - look how that worked out. Essentially, if they are more than happy, are the regulations doing the job?

More encouragingly, the representatives of PSB demonstrated some of their innovative work in this contested field. A question to Claire Gill of the BBC: Is there a link between decline of paid for news and rise of fake news? A - Claire Gill is encouraged by response of BBC etc to bring news to (social media) platforms where audiences search for non-paid for news, eg Tik Tok. Helena Kennedy QC - asked if the BBC liaise with Government re: potential harm? BBC response - they are part of trusted news initiative which works closely with govt - that’s a teaser for the revelation below

Liz Corbin (European Broadcasting Union of Public service broadcasters.) They are under constant attack (financial/ political) yet looked to by governments to address misinformation. (Of course governments can be one of the main causes of misinformation). If you manipulate information for political gain then you face the consequence of mistrust in governments. It is important not to overstate lack of trust in media institutions - during pandemic/ Ukraine war audiences turn to trusted sources (often PSB). Belgian news organisation VRT considers comments under stories as important as the stories themselves- team responds to comments that undermine evidence engage/ challenge or block persistent offenders

Liz Corbin says fake news is a lazy term as it conflates so many terms including mis/ dis- information but it is widely understood therefore useful. Claire Gill spoke of a commitment to ‘Show don't tell’ - audiences need to see how News reports are constructed and be given access to unedited material so they can understand the process. Media literacy is not about black and white but examining huge grey areas. Germany introducing Media literacy in school curriculums alongside health literacy which brings me to the very tem itself.

Parentzone founder Vicki Shotbolt (Big Society -again a consultancy I have no knowledge of but who appear to have a lot of influence - ie they were on the panel here) - doesn't like the term media literacy. She feels this needs to be expanded to include critical thinking, data analysis, statistics etc - I’d call that Media Studies

Potential teaching ideas

BBC on TikTok -analyse content - aim is reaching hard to reach audiences - evaluate success

Who checks the fact checkers ? Twitter Pauses effective? (show Read Article First?)

What causes lack of trust? Are 'rejectors' right about MSM?

Trusted sources especially at times of crisis - Public Service Broadcasters (government funded bodies but what if governments spread mis/disinformation? (Partygate)

Trust button - other buttons?

Recording of the event available here

Password for the recording: MpRJJKV6

Resources from the event

A transcript of proceedings is available on the link above

Speakers' slide material here

Delegate pack, including the agenda and speaker biographies, here

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