Media literacy, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Jenni Sargent, managing director of First Draft.
What is your definition of media literacy?
It’s very difficult because I’m one of the most vocal critics of the expression media literacy. I worry that it can be patronising because it ignores the fact that many of the attempts to manipulate people are very sophisticated. I worry that the list of checks that we are expecting the public to make puts too much responsibility on the consumer of the information, and not enough responsibility on the producer of the information. I always say that actually some of the tactics that we see are so sophisticated and clever, whether we’re looking at deep fakes or somebody who has deliberately copied the news website of a major news brand and has used that news brand’s logo. A lot of this content is deliberately designed to fool everyone. I do understand that there are steps we can take to encourage people to be more sceptical. We always say we are trying to help the public to make informed choices. We are not trying to give them any credibility indicators. We just want to help to uncover and promote accurate information, as well as placing responsibility on the provider of the information to give more credibility indicators whether that’s through transparency, the method they used to reach a conclusion or taking more time to break down the verification steps and explain the sources of their data and information.
What’s First Draft approach?
It is not only a matter of the tools and it goes beyond a merely theoretical approach: it is more of a combination of approaches. We provide resources for journalists. We have not yet developed resources with a focus specifically on the public. Understanding your audience is very important, so we create resources based on the assumption that they will be used by journalists. These resources have only started to become useful quite recently — for libraries or for other academic spaces, for example. We are now looking to try to adapt them to meet the needs of a more scientific audience, of the health community, for example. Before using these tools, however, we really have to help journalists to understand how they can be manipulated, and to what extent. They need to become aware of the threat before we can start talking about a one-size-fits-all response. It’s important not to scare everyone by saying that everything potentially represents a fatal risk. For instance, we have had lots of discussions with people about our typology of seven types of misinformation that we established to help people evaluate the risks. The typology includes satire, and for many people satire does not represent a threat. We agree with them to a certain extent. However, what we also see is that there agents of disinformation out there who deliberately try to disguise their tactics by saying ‘Oh, it’s only parody and satire’. We know that the typology is not perfect, but it does help to assess the threat level and the risk.
What is the biggest change you have seen in these years?
Previously we were really focusing on how to uncover what’s true and not true; there was a very literal approach to this. Now more than ever before we’re seeing a type of content permeated with negative sentiment that’s specifically created to cause division. But sometimes you actually can’t categorically say it is false. This content is often taken and presented out of context, and how it’s subsequently used is just as damaging.
In the past, we exclusively talked about working with online information that had surfaced on the social web from unofficial sources. This is where we identified the challenge. An amazing fact-checking community already existed and was dealing with quotes from politicians and campaign messages linked to elections from official sources, so a process within newsrooms was already in place for journalists to respond to the claims made in the official statements. We were addressing the unofficial statements from unknown anonymous sources. In the last six months we’ve been saying that we need to cover both, because of the tactics employed by some of the more influential public figures who either exaggerate or amplify some of the claims that appear online. These claims then enter the public sphere because they have been picked up by some of these influential figures. This means we can’t really ignore either now. There seems to be more of an overlap, or it might actually be the case that the behaviour and some of the sentiment coming from politicians or major public figures is fuelling some of this anger and division online.
Once again, only looking at one and not the other is no longer a sensible thing for us to do.