Media literacy, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Walter Quattrociocchi, head of the Laboratory of Data and Complexity at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
How would you define media literacy?
The definition varies greatly depending on the problem that you are trying to solve. Media literacy is invoked as a decisive tool with respect to the digital transformation, but the approach varies and changes according to the definition you adopt. It is difficult even to come up with a single definition of fake news. There are in fact two scenarios: the first is somewhat naive and is based on the idea that the proliferation of fake information results from the stupidity of the people accessing it. According to this approach, the solution lies in critical thinking. However, if we follow this approach we are not necessarily promoting media literacy, since teaching people to distrust what they read could ultimately undermine the trust people have in public and scientific institutions.
What about the second approach?
The second approach, which I find more honest, involves looking at how the digital transformation has had an impact on the production and distribution of news and the shaping of public opinion. Today, the media compete with many other players in generating content and information and, even more importantly, in capturing the audience’s attention. Since the business model has changed, and even monetisation is linked to popularity, analytics, likes and social media influence, the media tend to imitate the features that grab the user’s attention: attractive headlines, very concise content, strong images and so on. Moreover, this is taking place on platforms that were not originally intended to inform but to entertain. And at the end of the day, most of the information ends up being produced to entertain rather than to inform.
Can you give us an example of how to tackle this problem?
We recently carried out a pilot in collaboration with Facebook and with the support of the Italian Communications Regulatory Authority and Ministry of Education. It isn’t a top-down lesson in how misinformation is produced: on the contrary, it involves a maieutic approach. Students worked together on the production of content, starting from a meme and finishing with communication strategies related to controversial news stories. It is extremely useful for them to realise what the mechanisms behind content production and distribution through the digital environment are. They immediately grasp how language has been condensed, how images come to dominate social media communications, how easy it is to produce a meme, and why, when producing one, it is so much easier to follow the rules for creating entertainment rather than those that apply to information. Through simulation of real-life case scenarios, they get to experience and understand the dynamics that govern the digital world and the platforms we all use. By reflecting on these mechanisms, the students become much more aware of their impact and effects.
What about the role of journalists?
We can see that expert groups very often comprise mainly journalists. However, journalism is not the only relevant issue here. The real point is coming up with a new way of defining and informing public opinion. We conducted an experiment with the London School of Economics, in which we measured the impact of various journalistic techniques employed by the national media and dailies in relation to a controversial topic. What emerges confirms our previous data: people look for information that fits their worldview. When they don’t find it, they get angry, go into troll mode and enter a toxic comment. Apparently, many media outlets still struggle to come to terms with the idea that their role is no longer as central as it used to be and they put a lot of resources into trying to regain that position. It doesn’t work, however. On the other hand, some media outlets and journalists have accepted this change and are embracing new approaches, such as studying the audiences and the dynamics behind the change. There is a lot of research that can help in that context, and the academic literature can help to shape new experiments that will be useful in terms of making sense of reality. Research shows that involving people, allowing them to participate, is a key factor in rebuilding trust. When you take people behind the scenes of how information is produced, you can encourage them to regain interest and this can contribute to trust being rebuilt.