As if you hadn’t noticed, the elections are looming and it is a sad reflection of the nature of modern politics and communications that misinformation and its older, more sinister sibling, disinformation, are now omnipresent. (Misinformation is the accidental sharing of untruths – disinformation is deliberate. Both are bad.) What can we do to prepare ourselves for this increasing onslaught of whispered rumours, innuendoes and outright lies?
Making yourself ‘media literate’ is a good start and leads you onto the path towards the enlightened state of being able to think critically, not just when consuming the news or discussing politics, but in life in general.
When reading, watching or listening to a news story an easy way to remember the basics of media literacy is the nemonic S-C-A-M-M-E – or, even easier and relevant, ‘Scam Me’, since that is what media literacy aims to avoid happening to you! So let us imagine you have just come upon an intriguing story online.
Who produced this?
The Source of the media product you are considering is your starting point. Is it known to you – and what do you know about it? Is it government sponsored channel? In demoratic countries like Kenya, the UK or the US these are generally reliable since they are accountable to the government, independent watchdogs and, ultimately, the population whose taxes fund them. Undemocratic governments, on the other hand, tend to turn their national broadcasters into propaganda channels (Russia’s RT, Iran’s Press TV and so on). So the UK’s BBC or the US’s National Public Radio (NPR) – broadly reliable. North Korea’s Central Broadcasting Committee of Korea – not so reliable (not reliable at all, in fact).
Or is it privately owned and maybe operating to the owner’s or the advertisers’ agenda? Even private owners who claim to exert no influence over editorial policy will, nonetheless, have appointed the editors – and no editor is going to publish negative stories about the owner (their employer) unless they have a new job lined up in advance. Many private owners of news organs and media networks make no bones about their bias.
If you do know the source and you trust it, fine – keep reading/watching/listening. But maybe do a quick check to make sure it IS actually the channel you think it is. Some of the less pleasant governments around the world regular produce fake news stories in a format that is a remarkably convincing pastiche of the real, reliable source (In the run up to the current conflict in Ukraine Russia produced a fake BBC news story claiming that NATO had shot down a Russian fighter plane over the Baltic States – it had not, it never happened.) Check the web address or the Twitter handle as well – the lower case letter ‘L’ looks very like a number ‘1’ in many fonts, two ‘V’s beside each other look like a ‘W’ and so on. If you don’t recognise the source, check Wikipedia or other sources online such as the BBC’s country profiles (which include a media section). Check two or more – just in case.
What is this about?
The Content is the next element to consider. What is the story? Does it seem to fit with reality? Recently a satirical show called ‘Have I Got News For You’ in the UK announced on its social media page that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had resigned over COVID breaches – on April Fool’s Day. As any Briton will tell you, Boris Johnson would never apologise, never mind resign (so the story did not fit with reality) – and simple consideration of the Source would have told anyone that a comedy show doesn’t usually do Breaking News. (A calendar check is also useful in early April.) If it seems far fetched – do a cross check with a source you know.
Who is this aimed at?
The Audience comes next. Who is this story aimed at? Some sources have very specific audiences, channelled by language, subject matter, geographical focus and so on. Is this story meant for you? (If the story is about what to eat while pregnant to keep your baby healthy – are you a women? are you pregnant?) On the other hand, some try to be all things to all men and women – there are very few channels like this but even when they are aiming for a mass audience they will still be limited by, say, being in English, or by the tags they apply to the story – Africa, Kenya, Sport, Business.
These days, sadly, most media products seek to simply reinforce existing attitudes, not challenge or educate. If you are not the audience, then the story will either be irrelevant to you – or it may even offend you.
What is the point of this?
The Message is the actual point of the story – not what it is telling you, but what conclusion it wants you to draw. What existing perception is this meant to reinforce – or challenge? A story about a politician condemning corruption who is notoriously corrupt is clearly trying to change perceptions of that individual, even if he does have bags of cash in the back of his fancy car and owns a tower block in Dubai. If that individual has previously taken on the corrupt and seen them thrown out of office and into jail, then it is reinforcing the message.
How I am receiving this?
The Medium is also important (newspaper, radio, television, social media, a billboard posting) – a story on social media is generally viewed by the media literate than a printed, linguistically sophisticated newspaper.
What are you trying to get me do?
Finally, we get to the actual reason why whoever produced the piece of media we are consuming went to all that effort: the Effect. Is it simply to inform you that you should avoid Mombasa Road in Nairobi because there is a plane wedged under a bridge and one whole side of the road is blocked? In that case, you avoid Mombasa Road that day.
Or is it something deeper, beyond informing you that you should avoid Mombasa Road today, something that seeks to change your attitude (‘I now view this politician differently’) or your actual behaviour (‘I will vote for this politician now that I know he/she is going to be hard on corruption.’)
The continuum of Informational, Attitudinal and Behavioural change ends when the effect is achieved. If you are a Ministry of Health and you want people to stop smoking, you begin by giving the population evidence that smoking is bad for your health (a picture of a blackened lung and so on). Then, as you message more and more, the attitudes of smokers begins to change: they want to stop, but they are weak and need help because they are addicted to smoking. Finally, though, your messages – your TV advertisements, your warnings on cigarette packets, your visits to schools to educate children who then go home and bend their parents’ ears to make them stop smoking, your bans on smoking in restaurants that makes smoking difficult to do, your heavy taxes on the sale of cigarettes – you achieve ‘the Holy Grail’ of communications, you stop people smoking, a behavioural change.
At this point you step back. You have gone through the ‘Scam Me’ process and can know ask (and hopefully answer) some critical questions. Do I trust this media product? Who wants to achieve this effect on me and why? Is this an effect I am comfortable with?
If so, maybe share it with a friend. If not, maybe alert that same friend that there is misinformation or disinformation out there, because most research says that personal contacts – our family, our friends, those we know well – are the most trusted sources of information.
So, congratulations – you are now fully media literate.
And now, to amuse yourself, maybe go through the ‘Scam Me’ process with this article.