A deep political divide is starting to open up in digital literacy discussions. It’s not a new chasm, but a very old one, given fresh contours by new technology and practices.
It’s a split between those who think people should assume the power to make decisions about information and media, and those who prefer to build up authorities to help us cope with the digital world. On the one side, lower-case-d democrats; on the others, neo-gatekeepers.
The democrats argue that people should and can make their own decisions. They draw on the heritage of information and, before that, media literacies, movements which sought to empower readers (and viewers, and listeners, and browsers, and…). Some of them, like Jesse Walker, point out that fake news isn’t new.
when I hear the phrase fake news, I think of the Eleanor Clubs. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of those: It’s been seven decades since anyone was abuzz about them, and even then they were as fictional as the pope’s endorsement of Donald Trump or that photo of a bare-chested, gay Mike Pence. But in the early 1940s, quite a few people believed in them. They were even investigated by the FBI.
The clubs—named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of civil rights—were supposedly a subversive network of black servants working to overturn the racial caste system, so that one day whites would work for blacks instead of the other way around…
Read on for the whole story.
We can learn from the past, realizing that people learned to set aside bad media in favor of better. We can also learn lessons from recent uses of digital media, as Howard Rheingold’s excellent Net.Smart demonstrates. As Walker points out, the new digital technology powering the fake news flood also makes it easier to debunk the stuff.
This may be the first time in human history when a whispering campaign can come with footnotes. Rumors are undeniably resilient, but they are far easier to trace, track, and debunk now than they were when Franklin Roosevelt or Al Smith was running for president.
The bad news is that Facebook is filled with bullshit. The good news is that we now have amped-up, networked bullshit detectors. No discussion of “fake news” will get anywhere unless it takes both of those facts into account.
A good example of this approach comes from publisher Tim O’Reilly, who recently published an article on how he vets news online. It’s very useful, actually, listing a series of practical tips, from looking for references to checking out other links on the same topic. (Interestingly, at no point does he mention information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, or libraries.)
Critics of this democratic approach point to the flood of fake news, sometimes arguing that it helped shape the Brexit and US presidential votes. Either users can’t be trusted to know and use digital literacies, or enough of us are illiterate enough to turn the bad stories viral. Until the population as a whole practices solidly skeptical digital literacy, Macedonian click farms will prey on our understanding. Without authorities, we might organize and act politically.
Hence the neo-gatekeepers. We can see them at work in new projects to detect or block fake news. In December Facebook deployed flagging tools to American users. Facebook is also working with some French companies and the French state to generate some mechanism for keeping le pays de Zuckerberg free of fakery, at least for election news. In addition Facebook set up a German version:
stories reported as fake by users will be sent to Correctiv, a nonprofit news organization based in Berlin. If an item is deemed false, it will be marked as “disputed,” along with a justification for the label, and the site will warn users before they share it. Disputed items will also show up lower in Facebook’s algorithmically determined News Feed.
These efforts seem to combine human intervention with data analytics, the latter a rising source of authority in our time.
Other entities are seeking the authoritative position. Propornot, a site dedicated to identifying what its creators see as dangerously pro-Russian content, launched right after the November election, complete with a blacklist. The Washington Post, possibly seeking to maintain its authority in a world where the digital seems to be eating the newspaper, pushed Propornot hard, without vetting it too closely, it seems.
These neo-gatekeeper moves have elicited some pushback, even parody. One criticism, to which I am very sympathetic, is that these gatekeepers are often bad at their jobs. For instance, flawed or simply bad science stories are far too commonplace, especially around health issues. Rose Eveleth points this out in a recent podcast, arguing that ill-(in)formed science stories from fairly reputable stories can inform some bad, even dangerous decisions.
First, we’ve seen the rise of unrigorous, scammy journals that look legit, and spread unreviewed articles. Second, people have written and shared “alternative health” and related stories, from anti-vaccine campaigns to weird cancer claims and chemtrail conspiracy theories. Eveleth draws our attention to Natural News as one source, which, for example, as Wikipedia notes, “spread conspiracy theories about the Zika virus allegedly being spread by genetically modified mosquitoes” and “published a blog post promoting a homeopathic treatment for Ebola.” The authorities, it seems, can’t be fully trusted to keep their gates healthy.
Another aspect of this critique is the fact that many reporters, newspapers, and stations refuse to run stories, or alter their contents, because of perceived national security or advertiser challenges. They can even carry water for the powerful, rather than afflicting them.
The most pithy instance of this critique appeared in a single Tweet:
Murtaza Hussain 2003: Rifle-toting Americans barge into Iraq after reading viral Fake News story about weapons of mass destruction.
As one conservative commentator notes, echoing Noam Chomsky (!), “U.S. mainstream media exercises considerable self-censorship over stories that would displease the corporate and political establishment.”
From the other side of the aisle roars Chris Hedges:
The media landscape in America is dominated by “fake news.” It has been for decades. This fake news does not emanate from the Kremlin. It is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that is skillfully designed and managed by public relations agencies, publicists and communications departments on behalf of individuals, government and corporations to manipulate public opinion. This propaganda industry stages pseudo-events to shape our perception of reality. The public is so awash in these lies, delivered 24 hours a day through electronic devices and print, that viewers and readers can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction.
From neither the usual right nor the traditional left, Glenn Greenwald weighs in on Propornot:
The [Washington] Post itself – now posing as warriors against “fake news” – published an article in September that treated with great seriousness the claim that Hillary Clinton collapsed on 9/11 Day because she was poisoned by Putin. And that’s to say nothing of the paper’s disgraceful history of convincing Americans that Saddam was building non-existent nuclear weapons and had cultivated a vibrant alliance with Al Qaeda.
And so on, across the normally rancorous partisan divide. New authorities appear, and new calls for digital literacy sound. Some engage today’s politics directly, as when Matt Bai calls for a major movement to teach media literacy:
Here’s a radical thought: If President Trump is looking for a bold and useful education initiative that might serve the incidental purpose of redeeming what’s left of his soul, media literacy would be a pretty good place to start. Getting behind a nationwide push in K-through-12 classrooms could be an important and unifying priority for the incoming education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
Willingly or not, Trump has done more than anyone else to expose the problem. The least he can do is begin to address it.
Alexandra Samuel recommends instead a social practice of shopping against fake news. This involves readers beginning with seeing the news ecosystem as a whole:
we’re not going to conquer the problem of fake news unless we reject the much broader set of stories, news sources, and websites in which they are situated: the ever-growing slice of online, print, and broadcast media that feeds us celebrity gossip and listicles in place of actual content.
Then, as with Jesse Walker, Samuel finds historical inspiration:
Just as with the demise of yellow journalism, each of us has a role to play in shaping the relative profitability of quality journalism and the click journalism with which fake news is profoundly entangled. As long as we give our time, our dollars and our clicks to unreputable sites like these, fake news will continue to thrive. Or we can read, share and support the news and commentary produced by responsible media outlets, and see click journalism wither away, just as yellow journalism did a century ago.
My own bias, as I’ve written, is for democratic, anti-authoritarian politics. But today I’m more interested in how this political divide plays out for educators, from K-12 teachers to colleges faculty and staff, to museum and library professionals. How will we and our institutions stake out positions on this continuum, from democrats to neo-gatekeepers?
I can see incentives and professional reasons for hewing to either pole. Institutions and professions often function as gatekeepers, after all. At the same time each of these fields also has an ethos of empowering their students/users/patrons. Some of these institutions are closely tied up to authorities, such as active churches or states, while others see themselves as independent spaces. Each has taken up a related range of positions on previous digital issues, such as web sites, open education resources, and social media.
Many of these professionals tack Democratic in terms of party politics, which leaves the literacy politics question wide open. On the one hand, Democrats now see themselves as insurgents up against a malign Republic misadministration. On the other, they have a huge political party to rebuild, and #resistance can also mean the recreation of authority sapped by the November electoral disaster. If party politics influences these literacy decisions – it can go either way.
What authorities will we seek to invent or uphold? When will we seek to empower users?
Stepping back, does this make sense as a framework for digital literacy? If so, how do you think educators will fall out in the near future?