Opinion: Conspiracy theorists aren't the problem - it's the rest of us

3:11 pm on 20 August 2020

By Ximena Smith*

Opinion - In the fight against misinformation, who is worse - the conspiracy theorist, or the general public? Ximena Smith argues it's the latter, and says the government needs to adopt a nationwide media literacy strategy in order to remedy this.

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A wave of Covid-19 cases. A deluge of Covid-19 misinformation on social media. A spate of media articles pondering the reasons why misinformation spreads so easily online and how to combat it. We've been here before, and we'll be here again.

It's clear from the widespread sharing of the latest Covid-19 cluster rumour that vast improvements need to be made when it comes to more New Zealanders being able to critically analyse information they see.

But the urgent need for a comprehensive, nationwide media literacy strategy in New Zealand to combat misinformation is noticeably absent from the discussion so far.

The concept of media literacy is one that has largely disappeared from New Zealand's policy agenda, with the last significant government publication on it being written by the Broadcasting Standards Authority in 2007. It seems to have been diluted to become a much narrower concept, digital literacy, which is not directly defined in the government's Digital Inclusion Blueprint, but appears to primarily be focused on technical know-how, such as knowing what to do if your password gets stolen.

However, if we are serious about tackling the proliferation of misinformation on the internet, we will need a much more ambitious media literacy strategy than this.

As the UK media literacy expert David Buckingham argues, media literacy for the digital age must be much more than just teaching people how to operate software and hardware, or providing people with simplistic checklists that claim to help 'spot' the difference between true and false information.

Instead, media literacy must be far more wide ranging: it must empower people to know their rights when it comes to privacy and the commercial use of their data; it must teach people how algorithms and search engines shape the information we see; it must enable people to use digital media to its full potential in relation to self-expression, collaboration and collective organisation; and it must cultivate a healthy skepticism when it comes to reading and interpreting online and offline information.

Fostering questioning attitudes is perhaps the most important, and the ability to critically analyse and ask questions about the context of information must apply to all information, including news media.

It's not controversial to say that mainstream media outlets are certainly a more trustworthy source of information than that Facebook post from your mum's friend's aunt. But journalists and officials can still get stuff wrong too. They're not immune to inherently human tendencies such as bias, and the tight time constraints and pressures of busy newsrooms and wings of government can sometimes result in mistakes being made.

But there are nevertheless much more stringent verification measures that take place in newsrooms and government before information gets published, and so a wider understanding of how these verification measures work is a crucial aspect of media literacy too.

The development of a comprehensive media literacy strategy is far from easy. In order to have any substantial impact, media literacy interventions must be sustained over a long-term period of time, which inevitably makes them expensive, especially if they are to reach adult populations as well.

And while contemporary media literacy interventions have shown positive outcomes when it comes to increasing people's ability to critically assess information, not all interventions are inherently beneficial, so it's crucial to move forward with a careful, evidence-based approach, rather than a hasty, feel-good campaign.

Despite these complexities, the planning and roll-out of a nationwide media literacy strategy can be done, and it's already underway elsewhere.

The UK government, for example, has outlined in numerous publications the potential for media literacy to combat 'fake news' and disinformation, and last year they announced they'd develop a new online media literacy strategy, while the European Commission requires all Member States to promote and implement measures to foster the development of media literacy skills among their respective populations.

"There have always been and will always be rumours," the Health Minister said at the weekend. Indeed, it's unrealistic to expect media literacy to quash misinformation entirely - conspiracy theories will always exist.

But a comprehensive, nationwide media literacy strategy would help nurture a more empowered, resilient population that knows how to critically read, analyse and evaluate online information, and would hopefully go a long way in keeping conspiracy theories out on the fringes, where they belong.

* Ximena Smith is a Kiwi journalist recently returned from living and working in London and was a producer on RNZ's Morning Report.

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