At times of crisis or conflict, disinformation can be rapidly generated and spread. Media literacy initiatives are a crucial pillar of the European strategy to combat disinformation, and must be equally rapidly generated and spread if they are effectively to reach audiences vulnerable to disinformation.
In response to the war in Ukraine, the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) established a taskforce to understand disinformation trends, and issued a public call for information on media literacy initiatives during spring 2022. The 65 responses received sketch the contours of the European response but also revealed the limitations of the European effort. To meet future crises, a much more coordinated and scalable effort will be vital.
Which media literacy initiatives responded to the war?
A fair range of organisations became involved in media literacy initiatives in response to the war, including universities, news and public service media, educators and librarians, national and international NGOs, and some specialist media literacy organisations. Several initiatives were the result of partnerships across multiple organisations, and a few were government-backed and funded.
Geographically, the media literacy response stemmed from particular countries, notably:
- Those geographically close to the war: e.g., Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania
- And/or with an established tradition of media literacy organisations, policy and funding: e.g., Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal
Disappointingly, we did not receive responses from around half of EU member states, including from some of the largest countries (France, Germany, Poland), although their resources are surely greater than for several smaller countries that responded positively.
Target audiences are typically the general population or students
Nearly half of all the initiatives targeted the general public. Second most common were initiatives for educators and parents, with children or students likely to be secondary beneficiaries.
In a few countries, there appeared to be sufficient initiatives targeting a sufficiently wide range of audiences, including children, young students (middle to high school), university students, educators and parents, professionals (media, communications, etc.), and the general public. But in most countries, this was not the case. Moreover, we learned of few efforts to reach specifically at-risk audiences who might be more susceptible to misinformation or in need of reliable information.
The nature of the media literacy initiatives
In principle, media literacy initiatives on disinformation in the war in Ukraine could take many and diverse forms, including teacher training resources, development of curriculum materials, guidance on talking to children, targeted policy and funding decisions, awareness-raising campaigns, public service or private sector industry initiatives, public opinion surveys on population beliefs, research on enhancing critical literacy, encouraging fact-checking in the population, and more.
In practice, these diverse possibilities were not widely exploited. Usefully, advice such as ‘beware of phishing or hacking’ or ‘how to understand the underlying news narrative’ was targeted towards students, teachers, and some extent to professionals. But to understand these initiatives better, one would need to analyse the materials developed by the different organisations in their various languages.
Methods of reaching audiences
Just a handful of media literacy initiatives relied on in person meetings, awareness-raising or discussions, although pedagogically it is likely that direct interaction and active learning are optimal methods. More commonly, media literacy initiatives were provided as online resources that rely on audiences to discover and engage with them. For example, several initiatives involve universities and schools uploading a set of videos that address the problems of disinformation and media literacy, typically as standalone short videos on YouTube. The challenge, clearly, is for audiences to learn of their existence and then choose to watch them.
Most commonly, media literacy initiatives provided informative text online with the purpose of making the public aware of disinformation in the news. These included several live updated portals, information articles or news portals who maintain updated content on disinformation. Also fairly common were online instructions for teachers and parents to manage the war-related content that reaches children through the media. For teachers, these instructions advise how to manage debate in class, discuss difficult topics and teach children to critically engage with news and not to believe everything they read. A few such initiatives provide step-by-step practical instructions for activities to be conducted in class. For parents and caregivers, these recognise the risks for children of war news and disinformation, and encourage parents not to hide the reality of what is happening while at the same time avoiding dramatizing or overexposing young little children to potentially traumatic content.
While these likely have value, again they tend to rely on potential users to seek out valuable media literacy content themselves, a strategy likely to result in substantial under-use of available resources, especially among less advantaged groups. For example, informative pages for parents will be useful only if the parents actually search for them; online lectures or videos may be very accessible but what, in practice, is the probability that an individual will look for them?
Lessons for future crises
Rapid responses to crisis and conflict are demanding but necessary. At such times, the public searches for information about what is happening, and needs reliable guidance on where to look, what to trust and how to judge. Equally vital, media literacy efforts are required in ‘normal times’ to sustain and enhance learning, build resilience to disinformation and anticipate future needs by ensuring people know where to turn.
There is a substantial body of available research to inform present policy and practice on media literacy, including growing evidence about what works. Some includes specific guidance on how to respond rapidly in a crisis situation, for example as learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the uneven if promising media literacy initiatives reported to the taskforce suggests that, despite being concerned about disinformation about the war, Europe does not sufficiently prioritise media literacy efforts. Undoubtedly, the challenges are significant.
In future, we recommend:
- Media literacy organisations must be ready at all times to mount a rapid, scalable and robust response to disinformation crises;
- Strong European coordination of media literacy initiatives, including the sharing and evaluation of valuable resources and effective good practice;
- Resources to ensure that media literacy initiatives reach the majority of the general public, rather than just sitting on an organisational website, especially the more susceptible or at-risk groups likely to be disproportionately adversely affected by the spread of disinformation.
Note: Thanks to Isabella Rinaldi and Skand Agarwal for contributing to this work.
* Disclaimer: ”Please note that the mapping of European media literacy initiatives in question was conducted as a pilot rather than a final study. In this regard, some categories might need further refining”.