Why is media literacy important in the UK’s 2021 Online Safety Bill?

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The UK government recently released an online security bill, which it says fulfills its commitment “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending freedom of expression. Ahead of our LSE briefing on Thursday, July 8, Professor Sonia Livingstone reflects on the position of media education in the bill.

As stated in its first sentence, the purpose of the bill is to:

“To provide for and within the framework of OFCOM’s regulation of certain internet services; and to plan and in relation to OFCOM’s functions in media education.

The prominence given to media literacy in the Online Safety Bill is welcome to those who have long advocated for it. Yet its treatment in the bill has not been much discussed in relation to other aspects of the bill, even though the bill offers a particular, and in some respects limited, approach to education for children. media which tends to position the public as a consumer rather than a citizen. This is important because consumers’ need for media literacy may be limited to securing instrumental uses of technology and avoiding damage such as disinformation, avoiding the critical understanding needed to participate creatively or politically. as citizens in a digital world.

Twenty years ago, we had a heated debate around the Communications Act 2003 by specifying the promotion of media literacy by Ofcom in section 11. To what extent should it be designed narrowly or ambitiously, and for what purpose should it be promoted and by whom? For those of us who know that the UK has long been a world leader in media literacy, the results have been disappointing.

Now, Chapter 8 of the 2021 Online Security Bill (“Media Education”) replaces the original Article 11 with a new, much longer text. Does this reflect an increased importance of media literacy? I decided to follow the changes from the old to the new versions to see exactly what is said.

Several issues related to the proposed approach to media literacy stand out:

1. The role of critical appraisal. In academia, media literacy has long been defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create communications in any form. In 2003, Ofcom abandoned the “evaluation” dimension of this definition, a decision that now seems imprudent in the face of the advent of disinformation. If only we had spent the last twenty years promoting the ability of audiences to rate digital content!

In the Online Security Bill, this dimension was reintroduced, with media education defined as including “an understanding of the nature and characteristics of material published through electronic media. […and] knowledge and understanding of the processes by which this material is selected or made available for publication. But research suggests that any teaching of these issues in school is uneven at best, and that few teachers are supported or trained to provide such instruction.

2. The role of communication and content creation. Research also suggests that creation communicators – as agents, citizens, communities, and even future media producers – is a great way to facilitate media literacy. But there appears to be no mention at all of the creative dimension of media literacy in the bill. It is not very present in our schools either.

3. Media literacy depends on the readability of the digital environment. In other words, you can’t teach people to “read” complex unreadable, opaque, disguised or impossible text, interface, ecology. In this context, it seems important that the bill proposes to remove the old requirement in Article 11 that Ofcom should “encourage the development and use of technologies and systems for regulating access to services. [electronic] Equipment.”

While other parts of the bill encourage them, the previous wording recognized the link between media education and the provision of digital content: systems that regulate access must, among other requirements, be designed in a legible manner. , so people can understand the digital services they receive. , and they must be offered authentic and granular choices so that they can meaningfully influence their understanding.

4. Promoting media literacy requires educational initiatives. Paragraph (3) of the draft law on online security specifies that “OFCOM must in particular lead, commission or encourage educational initiatives aimed at improving media education for members of the public”. This is a new and curious requirement for a market-oriented communications regulator. Education takes years, not hours. General Comment 25 on the rights of the child in relation to the digital environment requires that media and digital literacy education begin when children enter school and continue throughout their years. school. How Ofcom will work with the Ministry of Education remains uncertain. The Ministry of Education also does not have a track record of promoting media literacy.

5. Promoting media literacy risks exacerbating previous inequalities. Although the bill conceptualizes online harm based on a risk assessment, it does not appear to extend this approach to media literacy. Yet media literacy is particularly vital for people in high-risk situations – marginalized groups more vulnerable to disinformation, for example, or people with disabilities who need digital resources to participate in society. As with all educational initiatives, if we do not target those in particular need, the overall effect will be to increase the knowledge gap, benefiting those already advantaged more than those in disadvantaged situations.

So it worries me that Chapter 8 of the Online Safety Bill does not differentiate “members of the public” by age or other status. It also worries me that children in high-risk situations or with disabilities or other forms of structural disadvantage are little included in Ofcom’s research. I also haven’t heard much about how to tailor the media literacy curriculum to “at risk” or “hard to reach” children who might need it the most.

6. Media literacy initiatives should be evaluated. I welcome paragraph (4), which requires Ofcom to “prepare guidance” “on the evaluation of educational initiatives” by those providing them – presumably the DfE, schools, as well as providers. regulated services. Getting it right will be crucial. It’s not about whether people enjoyed a media literacy campaign, or liked the colors of the website, or thought they had learned something.

What matters is whether the actual harms are reduced (and the actual benefits enhanced) as a result of a media literacy intervention. If this does not happen, attention must be focused not only on the limits of media literacy to change public understanding, but more on internet governance and the role of digital companies whose actions make accessible. to children the content, behavior, contacts and problematic contractual risks. and the general public in the first place.

So why is media literacy so important in the bill?

It is worrying that the bill does not contain any justification for combining the regulation of Internet services by Ofcom and provision for media education. Ten years ago, I argued that media literacy, although a vital force in the digital world, risked becoming the victim of the difficulties of internet governance in a society divided on the form that this governance should take. When online harm does arise in practice, it often seems easier to conclude that the understanding and behavior of the public is wrong, rather than that of regulators or digital providers.

These two points are linked, especially when we consider the case that most challenges Internet governance: children. Calls for Internet regulation in the best interests of children are usually met with calls for more media literacy. Additionally, calls for media literacy for children are usually turned into calls for children to learn to be “good” online, leaving bad actors online, both individual and corporate, unanswered.

So while it is excellent that the bill calls for media education for children and the general public, let’s take a look at what kind of media education is offered, and be careful not to shift the burden of responsibility. of those who create and amplify online damage on their victims. Especially when the debates over regulating digital providers get tough.

To register for the LSE Online Safety Bill information event on July 8, visit the Eventbrite page here. 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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