Learning to read all over again

It used to take quite an effort to manipulate people. Considerable amounts of skill, knowledge, engagement and financial means were needed to sway public opinion, influence elections, create a popular uprising or sell low-value products at high cost. Not any longer. And now social media can do it for everybody.

Creating divisive content, lies, fake images, pictures, voice recordings and spreading them at scale has become easy for private and state actors alike, and it’s not surprising so many are taking advantage of it. “Social media manipulation is rising globally”, warns a new report from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University, and “despite efforts to combat computational propaganda, the problem is growing at a large scale”. The report found that the number of countries where formally organized social media manipulation occurs rose from 28 to 48 within a year — and this is just influence exerted by political parties and governments, primarily around elections or referendums.

Social media has introduced a particular kind of market failure into the marketplace of information. While the costs of producing and establishing truth and trust have risen, spreading lies has become dirt cheap.

And despite all the efforts and good intentions to tackle the problem, no law, no regulation, no official task force alone will be powerful enough to break the dynamics. This is especially the case since this situation delivers big-time benefits to those who profit most from manipulation. We are not only talking authoritarian governments or powerful private sector companies here. There are plenty of politicians along the political spectrum who detest being criticized by journalists and feel that their hour has come, contributing to an anti-media narrative that raises the cost of reliable information even further. So what can be done?

The key to countering these dynamics is understanding them in the first place. As much as consumers have learned not to trust the promises of glossy advertising any longer, to look at commercials more as a way of entertainment and lifestyle than as a reflection of facts (even if the stuff reads “clinically proven”), they need the same healthy scepticism when looking at information. Audiences need to know how media works, whose interests it could be serving and what the underlying financial and political dynamics are.

They need to be aware of the fact that voices and images can be manipulated, that algorithms on social media favour the bold and loud, and what to make of this. And they have to keep on training those deep reading skills that help to develop empathy, critical thinking and reflection. Neuroscientists are already warning that the kind of distracted skim reading prevalent on social media and digital devices harms the brain’s capacities to understand complexities and emotion.

It would be a major mistake to target the media literacy of young children and students only. In fact many of the “digital natives” are much savvier and better equipped to understand the new media world than older generations, who take the written word at face value and are still in awe of all the information opportunities that have opened up to them over the past decade. Indeed, older audiences might need more help in navigating facts and fiction in the digital realm than their children and grandchildren.

As strange as it sounds — more skepticism can be the first step towards greater certainty.

This text was published by NewsMavens on September 8, 2018