Media literacy is undoubtedly a crucial tool in the fight against disinformation. A public that is both critically and digitally literate is much more likely to be able to assess the information they encounter online, to identify sources they can trust, and make well-informed decisions as citizens, consumers, and more. Being media literate opens up opportunities to engage more fully and more creatively with the online (and offline) media world.
Media literacy education is crucial for adults as well as children. It’s not something that you learn once and then you’re done. It’s about both practical skills, and just as importantly about knowledge and awareness of the digital environment and how it operates. In this sense, it is a life-long process as digital and media environments are constantly evolving.
It is certainly not the only solution to the problem of disinformation, and shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet that renders other regulations and initiatives unnecessary. As Professor Sonia Livingstone has frequently argued, media literacy tends to be seen by policy makers as an easy win, but in fact it is incredibly complicated. There is so much about the online world that is illegible and constantly changing, and it is crucial to avoid burdening the citizen with the responsibility of understanding the incomprehensible.
That said, media literacy is an essential partner to regulation in terms of improving the public’s ability to navigate the online environment. Many regulations will be less effective without an accompanying level of education and awareness, and there is clear scope to expand this. An Ipsos Mori survey from March 2021 found that just 9% of Europeans (from 11 countries) have participated in training about how to use online tools to distinguish between true and false information, but 58% are interested in doing so. Two-thirds of those surveyed believed it would be appropriate for a tech company to provide training to users to improve their ability to critically understand online information.
Media literacy’s value in tackling disinformation should not be seen in isolation. While many of the concerns about online disinformation have emerged in recent years, media literacy work has been ongoing for decades and has a wider role to play in citizenship. There is a tendency to see media literacy as the solution to a particular problem such as disinformation (or online safety, digital inclusion, hate speech, radicalisation etc), but this can be problematic as it narrows the focus, and leads to short-term thinking, when what is needed is long-term planning and funding, ideally with a timeline of a decade or more.
Raising general media literacy levels will increase the public’s resilience to online disinformation, even if this is not the direct target of an intervention.