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Media and the Citizen

*A workshop was held with pracitioners at LSE on this topic on 31st May 2018. Read a summary of the discussion HERE.*

Briefing: Media and the citizen

After three national polls in rapid succession, Britons are slightly more confident of their political knowledge: 52% claim to know at least ‘a fair amount’ about politics, with more women, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters and those voters in social class DE saying they are interested in the subject than in previous years (Hansard Society). But voting aside, there has been no increase in political participation, even among the young - perhaps surprisingly, given media narratives hailing a ‘woke’ generation. Indeed, around a quarter of UK respondents to a recent Reuters Institute survey sometimes or often avoid the news.

And yet sources of news and comment have proliferated. People can now choose to follow politicians directly, to curate their own news through Twitter or an app like the BBC’s, and to supplement bulletins from public service broadcasters with news from websites, podcasts and channels funded by individuals or foreign governments. Some of these sources seek to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of established media. (Nonetheless, it is important to note that two-thirds of Britons say they value impartial news, and that TV is their first port of call to find it (Ofcom).)

Writing in 1989, Robert Dahl feared that a ‘policy elite’ might use technology to consolidate its own power. But the ‘elite’ is now a contested and often derogatory term. The questions of who is manipulating information, with what motives - and who is responsible for controlling the flow of misinformation - are now seen as urgent. Understanding this demands a grasp of

  • How government works
  • How the media operates
  • How platforms use technology to personalise content

How best, then, to equip people with the skills they need to recognise misinformation and make informed decisions about whom to trust?

Can media literacy help?

As Sonia Livingstone has pointed out, ‘media literacy’ is often proposed as a ready solution. Yet although both Ofcom and the European Commission (in its Audiovisual Media Services Directive) monitor and nominally promote media literacy, it is not embedded in UK government policy or the school curriculum, which focuses on digital safety. Instead the main impetus has come from not-for-profit and media organisations. The most recent initiatives in the UK include: 

  • BBC School Report Evidence Toolkit and the iReporter game
  • National Literacy Trust/ Guardian: NewsWise

Comparatively few media literacy initiatives are aimed specifically at adults. However, the European Commission’s ‘DisInfo’ campaign is an example: its purpose is specifically to undermine Russian disinformation: the National Security Unit, announced in early 2018, also focuses on ‘fake news’ from ‘state actors’.

Citizenship cannot just be a matter of assessing competing claims and coming to an informed judgment at election time. It means being able to have a meaningful say in policymaking, to organise or join political movements, and to debate and challenge others - a ‘democratic and critical approach’, as Livingstone has described it:

'The promise of media literacy, surely, is that it can form part of a strategy to reposition the media user - from passive to active, from recipient to participant, from consumer to citizen.' (Livingstone, 2004) 

As more and more political discussion happens online, the ‘communicative entitlement’ to participate in the life of the community (Nick Couldry) has been shaped by the policies and site designs of platforms, and these in turn are shaped by issues of legal liability, advertising, algorithmic design  and the attention economy rather than democratic and civic considerations. Even Facebook’s recent drive to make its political advertising more transparent has had the unintended consequence of denying undocumented immigrants the right to buy advertising, on the basis that they cannot satisfactorily prove their identity.

Indeed, for some scholars the key question is whether online anonymity is a vital recourse to ensure freedom of expression, or if it fosters abuse and disengagement:

'When you don’t know where the purported voice on the other side of the debate is coming from, even whether it is one voice, when you don’t know whether your remarks are being edited and fed in certain ways into some channels and not others, when you don’t know how what you say is being spread around – I think that is really likely to prove utterly destructive of democracy in the end.' (Onora O’Neill, 2013)

What are citizens doing about this?

Ofcom research carried out in 2017 suggests social media users are now sharing information more selectively, preferring WhatsAppSnapchat or Facebook Groups to more open environments such as their main Facebook feed. At the same time, Facebook has tweaked its algorithm to favour posts from family and friends over news. Ofcom finds that fewer people reported seeing views they disagreed with on social media in 2017 than previously.

But could these responses create their own problem? A retreat into private spaces represents an additional challenge for those trying to foster deliberative discourse that builds democracy. An aspiration to ‘empower’ the public at large will stumble if some wish to avoid encountering views with which they disagree. Indeed, some models of democratic theory seek to placate citizens’ concerns rather than stimulating people to challenge each other, with unpredictable resul

In an interview in 2006, political theorist Chantal Mouffe identified the delicate balance between informing and stimulating people sufficiently to encourage democratic debate, without triggering ‘culture wars’ or a wholesale rejection of democratic politics: “Democracy’s aim is to enable forms of expressing conflict that are not going to destroy the political association.”

More recently, danah boyd has suggested that in encouraging people to question everything they see, some programmes instil scepticism and distrust of all media, regardless of its credentials:

'This is about making sense of an information landscape where the very tools that people use to make sense of the world around them have been strategically perverted by other people who believe themselves to be resisting the same powerful actors that we normally seek to critique.'

This distrust implies that ‘kitemark’ initiatives like The Trust Project have the potential to exclude and alienate sections of the public who feel ignored by ‘approved’ media outlets.

What next?

Does the pace of technological and political change mean we now have too narrow a conception of ‘media literacy’? In a networked world, is Dahl’s vision of an ‘educated general public’ complemented by ‘attentive publics’ in different policy spheres still realistic, or even desirable?  Who should take the lead in delivering it - schools and colleges, democratic institutions, civil society or all of these? 

The fourth Truth, Trust and Technology workshop at LSE will address these questions:

  • What media literacy skills do citizens need, given that a functioning democracy requires a well-informed public? What kinds of policy regarding media literacy would enable 'due trust' in democratic processes, and give people the tools to assess competing claims?
  • Is media literacy for children and young people effective and fit for purpose? What about older adults, who sometimes lack digital skills and have generally not received formal training? Is the nature of media literacy itself changing?
  • What responsibilities for improving information quality and the conditions of media literacy do platforms, journalists, corporations, public relations, advertising, civil society and government have?
  • What specifically can be done about the risk that algorithmic selection polarises opinions and beliefs?
  • What expectations are citizens entitled to have about how information and news is presented to them online?