From practice to policy? What lies beneath

Can media literacy policy be developed to deliver social justice, to empower the most vulnerable subalterns so that they can feel represented? There are technological, ideological, and socio-political structures that govern media messages and this creates the paradox that media literacy cannot study what remains unarticulated. An upcoming virtual global summit holds the rich possibilities.

Media literacy practice’s attention over the past two years has been hijacked by the shock and awe of events—in particular, the Covid-19 pandemic and by discourse on fake news allegations before the US election. Legislation, too, went on the fast track as lawmakers in US realized not merely the importance, but the urgency of the need for media literacy. So rather than a public educational need, media literacy is seen as a pedagogic solution to the pressing problem of misinformation or “infodemic,” as the WHO termed it.

Meanwhile, the power of fake news as an influencer is suspect. Although Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was often blamed on fake news, research suggests that the power of fake news to expand the echo chamber is at least overrated, and perhaps unlikely. In India, ultra-right hate-mongering has gone through the roof in recent years. Both these are examples of dog whistling, the biggest beneficiary of which are political parties that might exploit the virality of social emotions, and social media platforms, where virality is agnostic to facts.

As mainstream media picks up anything remotely viral, the trap is laid by a combination of amplification-hopefuls and media production imperatives. But media literacy cannot solve the dilemma between free speech and “fair speech.”

To its credit, the WHO correctly hints that the real problem even within this narrow definition is that media consumers don’t know whether a message is information or misinformation. But if media literacy presumes a prevalence of media illiteracy¸ it’s in for a bit of a surprise, and that’s where a John Fiske might collide with a Noam Chomsky: Fiske suspects the media consumer is already literate, while Chomsky stands by the mass manipulability of the media. If, as Mark Deuze says in his book MediaLife, we live a “media life” (whether or not as “zombies” as he claims), media literacy must also be an organic consequence that the cat dragged in. As a final twist in that tail, are any of these arguments valid for, say, rural India, where access is limited to mainstream media but far more enabled to social media by way of mobile devices? The WHO does not directly acknowledge that the idea of misinformation may be manipulated by a dominant narrative.

In recent years, populist political leaders have spotlighted how seemingly simple it is for political discourse to shine the light on and galvanize archetypal belief systems and amplify social biases. Forms of dangerous dog whistling have pervaded closed social networks such as WhatsApp, and are then amplified on more publicly accessible social media and mainstream media. “Cauliflower,” a humble enough vegetable, is reinvoked among an extreme-right closed group in India that calls itself “Trads” to imply Muslim massacre: In 1989, more than 1,000 people were killed, largely Muslims, in the northeastern state of Bihar, buried, and camouflaged by planting cauliflower patches. This group borrows from the neo-Nazi ecosystem.

The pandemic has exposed how easy it is for social media discourse to create alternative truths, but also expose hidden truths.

Illinois became one US state to pass a media literacy legislation, mandating state high schools to teach media literacy starting this year. But a previous attempt at the federal level to pass a rather similar law seems largely in cold storage—usually implying it’s dead. Numerous independent organizations are working tirelessly at building curricula, delivering media literacy lessons to public at large, and influencing public policy. In 1992, the national debate on media literacy wondered, do we need a public policy and if so, how apolitical can it possibly be? In India, there is no policy, but the government has claimed that it has been a pioneer of media literacy and has been spreading media literacy to the entire nation via its daily Covid-19 update bulletins on television.

So, what shape a public policy on media literacy must take is a far more politically fraught question than it should be. As in the United States, several independent (some funded, others crowd-funded) organizations are making valiant initiatives to bust misinformation. Beyond those efforts and beyond looking at it as a tool of technological empowerment, there is precious little to further the cause of media literacy in India.

The rich possibilities of a discussion around media literacy policy got the organizers of Rise World Summit excited. This Mumbai, India-based platform has conducted a three-day event for nine years annually. Last year, it brought on its platform 55 countries and conducted workshops and roundtables on developmental themes ranging from gender-responsible value chain to SDG, agriculture to peace.

This year, for the first time, a discussion on media literacy makes its entry at the virtual Rise World Summit 2022, scheduled February 3-5. In this roundtable called “Infodemic and media literacy: The problem before policymakers,” a small but influential group of media literacy practitioners and academics will bring US and India experiences and discuss policymaking possibilities.

Schedule: February 4, 8:00-10:00 pm India time; 9:30-11:30 am, Eastern time; 2:30-4:30 pm GMT. Registration is free.


Shashidhar Nanjundaiah started and headed private media colleges in India. Shashi has examined Donald Trump’s social media rhetoric, Indian news television’s use of textual devices to weave narratives, and the articulation-silence dialectic among Indian voters. His research on Indian media’s programming policy and practice was one of the first works on post-liberalization India. Shashi’s current research interests lie in media literacy, and his ongoing research is based on media literacy, nationalism, and “media-invisibilization,” where he examines how media production imperatives impact media literacy efforts. He has been on the jury of scholarly conferences on media literacy, lectures and conducts workshops and webinars on media literacy at colleges in India, campaigning to media students to spread media literacy among underprivileged communities. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois, and Bangalore, India.

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