Media Literacy in the Online Safety Bill: Sacrificing Citizenship for Resilience?

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The UK Online Safety Bill, released by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in May 2021 and currently under the control of a small parliamentary committee, aims to establish a new regulatory framework to combat harmful content online. Here, Professor Lee Edwards of the LSE analyzes how media education is presented in the bill and suggests how the bill’s proposals could be strengthened.

In the online security bill, media education is an important place to raise awareness of harmful content and potentially give users of online services strategies to recognize and combat disinformation. Although questions have been raised about its presentation in the bill and the assumptions it makes about Ofcom’s capabilities, the provisions extend Ofcom’s media literacy obligations – previously set out in the Communications Act 2003 – in three important ways. These new obligations are:

  • Encourage the development of technologies that allow users to identify disinformation and control the information they receive;
  • “To carry out, commission or encourage educational initiatives” which support media literacy;
  • Prepare guidelines for the evaluation of media education initiatives.

The new obligations help to clarify some of the more general provisions of the previous law (for example, by clarifying how to interpret the “nature and characteristics” of content, and how the idea of ​​awareness and understanding is to be interpreted). These obligations give Ofcom more power to influence both organizational governance and investments related to media education, as well as to shape media literacy education curricula. As such, they enhance the regulator’s potential to assert the value of media literacy among media producers and those who support user engagement with the media.

However, the new bill also includes a subtle but crucial wording change, from a requirement to improve the awareness and understanding of the “public” of the media to raising the awareness of “members of the public”. The first requires Ofcom to improve our collective levels of media literacy and critical engagement with media content, while the second is an obligation to improve individual levels of media literacy.

The wording change is consistent with the focus on individual harms in the bill and certainly eases the obligation to assess media literacy – it is easier to measure outcomes in terms of behaviors and abilities individual than to identify collective empowerment. However, adjustment risks sacrificing one of the main advantages of media literacy: its ability to support citizens who are informed, engaged, ready to participate in deliberations and debates in our democratic processes. While this may not be the intention behind the change, the effect is inevitable when media education is incorporated into a bill primarily focused on the regulation of platforms and providers.

Additionally, more specific interpretations of ‘technologies and systems’ that enhance media literacy aim to facilitate the ability of users to identify types of content, determine its reliability and accuracy, and control how they receive content. information. These accents prioritize the ability to detect disinformation, rather than the ability to critically engage with the media more broadly. Yet media literacy interventions that can contribute to critical thinking and evaluation most often take a systems approach: they include learning about how media is produced and consumed, understanding media industries. and their institutional power and priorities, the critique of media representations and the development of the capacity to create media. Fostering this type of media education can have a positive effect on our ability to actively engage in online information, the power of the media, and to recognize our own voices as citizens. The bill runs the risk of turning this capacity-building literacy into an exercise in informed consumption. If media education is deployed alone as a mode of self-protection against exploitation or harm, its potential to support our deliberative and democratic capacities could be seriously weakened.

These two questions highlight a more fundamental problem with the bill: the focus on users rather than citizens and on mitigating individual rather than collective harm. Yet the bill focuses on issues that directly affect our collective well-being. Living in a society where information and knowledge remain balanced, reliable and accessible to all, or where our desire to communicate our experiences is not tempered by fears of hatred and intolerance, is in our common interest. Harm occurs not only when individuals are damaged by online interactions, but also when those same interactions escalate, ultimately reducing our critical capacities and generating antagonistic arguments rather than agonistic debate in society. We have already seen the results of this type of polarization in increased nationalism, the reification of disinformation and the dismissal of experts, and a gradual weakening of democratic arrangements that rely on engaged and informed citizens.

Despite this, the bill imagines users primarily as atomized individuals rather than as social beings living in relationship to one another. The corollary of media literacy suggested by the bill is that collective benefits are subordinate to individual resilience. If this framing of media literacy becomes the dominant mode of delivery, there is a risk that the perception of its broader value to society will gradually dissipate. While a critical analysis of the power of platforms is desperately needed on the part of all citizens, the instrumentalization of media literacy is worrying at best, and dangerous at worst – potentially leading to further political polarization and to an even lower resilience to disinformation than we currently have.

There are options to mitigate this danger:

  • The wording of the bill could be changed to go back to “public” rather than “members of the public”, for example.
  • The specifications of the bill could be broadened to include the broader critical capacities that are so fundamental to our deliberative engagement.

However, claims about the need to support collective welfare and media literacy would be more strongly articulated under digital rights, and the lack of such rights is a more fundamental issue with the bill.

During our summer roundtable, Professor Sonia Livingstone and MP Chi Onwurah both strongly advocated for the inclusion of an explicit digital rights bill in the bill, as the foundation for online security. . Even though such rights are not included in the final version, they are undoubtedly necessary. The intensive discussions about citizenship, media literacy, due diligence, and the need to protect freedom of expression have all arisen in part because we lack a framework against which these issues can be referenced in a context. digital world. Existing human rights declarations are difficult to transplant as such into digital contexts, due to the changed environment in which they exist. Digital rights have to cope with the different architectures, actors and network dynamics of digital spaces, and are not easy to adjust – as demonstrated by the long process of drafting the UN General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. But our digital rights need to be addressed by both civil society and politicians, if initiatives like the Online Safety Bill are to be legitimate, sustainable and ultimately successfully implemented, and if the societal value of media education must be preserved.

This article gives the author’s point of view and does not represent the position of the Media @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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