Media literacy and misinformation

This week – 24–31 October 2023 – is UNESCO’s Global Media and Information Literacy Week. The theme this year is ‘Media and Information Literacy in Digital Spaces: A Collective Global Agenda’.

UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay is quoted on the event’s webpage:

With the spread of rumors and the distortion of facts, the boundary between true and false has become blurred. This is undermining the very foundations of our societies and democracies and putting lives at risk…

The prevalence of misinformation and disinformation in the media is a cause for concern around the world. The sharing of false information presented as truth raises many potential harms, including health and safety concerns, the undermining of democratic processes, and the spread of hate speech. Research also suggests that the distortion of the truth online impacts peoples’ reasoning skills even after information has been corrected.

The sharing of false information is not always intentional nor done with malice. While definitions vary, ‘misinformation’ online is generally defined as ‘verifiably false or misleading or deceptive’ content shared via digital platforms and which is reasonably likely to cause harm, regardless of its intent to deceive (p. 6). ‘Disinformation’, in contrast, is deliberately misleading.

Some governments are considering regulating misinformation and disinformation. In Australia, the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation is a voluntary industry code with the signatories committing ‘to safeguards to protect Australians against harm from online disinformation and misinformation, and to adopting a range of scalable measures that reduce its spread and visibility.’ Both the Labor and Liberal Parties have committed to strengthening legislation to combat misinformation and disinformation online, with the Government recently releasing an exposure draft for the Communications Legislation Amendment (Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation) Bill 2023. The exposure draft Bill has attracted a range of responses, including criticism from key stakeholders who emphasise the risk of impacting freedom of expression (see, for example, submissions from Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), p. 11, and Law Council of Australia, pp. 9 and 13).

Both the United Nations and AHRC (p. 11) have noted the importance of focussing on media and information literacy, rather than regulation, as a critical alternative and complementary approach to combatting the sharing of false information online. This is considered especially important because – as noted by the AHRC – a regulatory approach makes a ‘key assumption’ that:

misinformation or disinformation can be easily identified, and that there is no room for legitimate differences in opinion as to how content should be characterised. However, distinguishing truth from falsehood is not always a simple or straightforward task. (p. 10)

As explained by academics writing in The Conversation, media literacy encompasses ‘the ability to critically engage with media: to discern fact from fiction, decide which digital technologies and platforms to use and which to avoid, and to critique the power and influence media and technology companies have’. Media and information literacy encourages individuals to identify potential biases in all news and media, as well as performing the nuanced task of identifying misinformation. It also empowers people to not just consume information, but to question, and to critically engage in discussion and civic debate (p. 17). It follows that more critical consumers of media are less likely to unwittingly share misinformation and fake news.

Research shows that media literacy levels in Australia have room for improvement, especially in digital spaces. In Australia, 99% of adults use the internet, and yet – according to research from Western Sydney University, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra – 30% of the adult population have low levels of media literacy (p. 7). This rises steeply to 75% for people aged 75 years and older, and 57% for those aged 56–74 (p. 36). Australians with lower education levels, a disability, lower incomes, as well as Indigenous Australians and those living regionally, are also at greater risk of having low media literacy. Further, less than half of Australian adults can confidently identify misinformation online, while 69% of Australians are concerned about the presence of misinformation in online news (p. 114).

The Australian Media Literacy Alliance (AMLA) is Australia’s leading organisation focussed on improving media literacy in Australia. Formed in 2020, it is an unincorporated alliance of broadcasters, museums, libraries and universities. A key objective of AMLA is to ‘enable the development of a united approach to media literacy in Australia’, an approach it believes should be underpinned by a national strategy developed and resourced by the Australian Government. Similar approaches have been recommended by the Australian Senate Inquiry Report Into Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy (2021) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report (2019).

Several other countries have developed focussed national government approaches to media literacy, including Finland and the United Kingdom. An overview of various policy responses is contained in the OECD Education Working Paper Policy responses to false and misleading digital content: A snapshot of children’s media literacy. UNESCO’s Media and Informational Literacy: Policy and Strategy Guidelines support governments to develop local guidelines, and the European Commission’s Media Literacy Guidelines provide a framework for member states to reflect and report on media literacy.

Many policy frameworks approach media literacy by way of education policy. In Australia, media literacy is included in the Australian Curriculum. However, recent research (albeit undertaken just prior to the review of the Australia Curriculum) shows that some teachers do not feel wholly equipped to teach media literacy. While a focus on young peoples’ education is important, the statistics on low media literacy amongst adults suggest that a wider approach may be necessary.

Various comprehensive resources aimed at improving Australian media literacy are currently available. These include a suite of education resources developed by the Museum of Australian Democracy, the ACMA’s guide to spotting misinformation, and the ABC’s education resources ‘Explaining News’.  

Happy Global Media and Information Literacy Week!


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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