"The division into real and virtual life has become quite outdated." How and why to study media literacy today
The methodologist of the project: "The Earth Is Flat -– How to Read Media?" Ksenia Luchenko spoke about how not to get lost in the modern media reality, whether social networks have a "dark side", and why schoolteachers are afraid to meet on Tinder.
Your project is based on the idea that media literacy is a special skill that is characteristic of our time. But people have always searched for and processed information on different media. At what point did it become necessary to study this specifically?
In some respects, there is really nothing new here. I am also not inclined to say that we live in a particularly revolutionary era. People of every historical period seem to believe that the time in which they live is unprecedented. In fact, the invention of the printing press, conveyor production, or electricity are no less, if not more, revolutionary events than what is happening today. Man is a mediatised being by nature, meaning any communication that is mediated by some medium is already a media communication. And media literacy, all these skills that we are trying to develop, have always been there; they were just called and used a little differently.
The first time I heard the term “media literacy” was in the early 2000s, when there was still no conventional translation into Russian. And it seemed that this was something artificial, exaggerated, superfluous. But the concept gained a foothold and gradually developed. Today, media literacy is a broad interdisciplinary field. If you consider, for example, the topics that HSE touches on at the conferences organised by the Centre for Digital Cultures and Media Literacy led by Professor Anna Kachkaeva, the concept now covers quite broad fields, ranging from applied aspects like journalism or virtual reality to mathematics, neuroscience, law, and various humanitarian and psychological aspects of media.
Looking at it from one angle, we have narrowed down our project; we understand media literacy in the broadest sense as information verification: fake or not fake, verification methods, working with sources. The level is slightly higher when we come to critical thinking – a way to think about our media reality and to understand what is in front of us. But besides this, there are many other things, ranging from practical aspects like digital etiquette and cybersecurity to philosophical and psychological issues, for example, the problems of cyberbullying, online communication, ethics.
Has it become so essential a set of soft skills that it no longer falls exclusively under journalism?
Most certainly. On the one hand, these are soft skills, and on the other, it is a field for research and a way to describe the reality in which we live. Here, everything is offered all at once – both applied training sessions and the thought pattern. As for journalism, this is, of course, one specific media specialty. However, all specialties are now related to media in one way or another; it is impossible to be a successful lawyer and not run social network accounts, for example. Even doctors generally have to deal in telemedicine and mediatised communication. That is, media literacy is now a basic set of skills and a rational attitude to reality that everyone needs. In this sense, journalists are simply more specialised. This is one of the fields that works quite closely with the evidence base. Investigative journalism techniques, data analysis, working with sources are certainly skills that are built on the basic set of media literacy.
During the pandemic, we read a lot of fake news about the coronavirus that was later proved untrue. But there is also a reverse example: experts previously unanimously posited that the laboratory origin of the virus was simply a conspiracy theory. However, it later turned out that everything is not so unambiguous, and today, scientists are quite seriously considering the alternative version. Do such cases undermine the credibility of experts and information verification methods themselves?
I think that everything in our world today undermines the credibility of experts. One of the most fashionable trends today is the expert credibility crisis. And Covid-19 showed all the holes that we hadn't thought about before. To give you an apt example, the atrocious line of reasoning that some doctors who chose to campaign against vaccines and the jab ran with was simply unbelievable. We have always advised as a matter of principle to check the sources, check the experts, and if an expert comments on something relating to their specialty, it's all right. But then we had doctors who chose to run with some bizarre and fanciful nonsense direct relating to their specialty. They did this while being formally experts in that field. The question becomes: in this case, in principle, can one trust doctors? How does one choose who to trust? We have yet to comprehend the full danger of this situation.
Returning to your example, we just didn't have enough knowledge. It happens. Another thing is that everything is superimposed on the expert credibility crisis, on “we told you, here is your evidence base and other critical thinking". But even if it turns out that the coronavirus originated in a lab, this does not contradict the fact that early on, experts did not have enough information to know about it definitively. Every conspiracy theory has some chance of being proven right at some point. I doubt QAnon or reptiloids will ever be proven. But some other stories may turn out to be true. What is important to understand here is that conspiracy theories can never prove anything; it is always a dead end. But the same hypothesis can hypothetically be proven using established methods.
If I accidentally deduce the Pythagorean Theorem from a tarot layout, it still doesn’t mean that I have proven it...
Quite right. It does not mean that you can use tarot cards to prove theorems, or that this method works in some other situations.
Many publications on your website talk about the "dark side” of the Internet and social networks: smartphone addiction, FOMO, and the like. Is this really such a big problem? Isn’t there a moral panic here that people will soon forget how to communicate live?
My position here somewhat contradicts our team’s overall viewpoint. Personally, I am a techno-optimist, and I believe that this is in many respects a moral panic. The film The Social Dilemma is, in my opinion, something beyond good and evil. Something like a documentary on NTV, which exposes the terrible conspiracies of the liberals. This is such a classic scarecrow. That said, most of our experts and team members take a slightly more alarmist point of view than I do. Particularly when it comes to the issues of platform capitalism, social networks, FOMO, and the like. We are not entirely on the same side on this issue, which is okay, because we discuss everything among ourselves and try to hear out what both sides have to say. Neither side has any radical content on this particular issue. What is important is that we agree on the major issues.
However, this is what the audience is worried about; people are really concerned about these issues. Many people would want some life hacks on how to balance their time in terms of where we are online and where we live our real lives. I am actually convinced that this division into real and virtual life is quite outdated. There are biographically significant events that take place online. How many of our most important conversations that change at least our relationship with a particular person and at the most our entire lives in some way take place in chats? It’s the same thing with many other things. And life is incredibly holistic. In this sense, teenagers, as one of the target audiences, give us some insight into the fact that you need not divide your life, but can actually live happily that whole unified life; you can do something in physical analogue dimensions, and transfer something completely online, as long as it’s not an ersatz.
Let me give you another example. A book by a former journalist was recently published in which he writes about how he can't stand the news. At some point, he felt like he was being sucked into an endless stream of useless content that did not make his life better, and decided to completely exclude news from his daily consumption. We can also say about many social networks that they only serve as an additional source of anxiety and do not improve the quality of our life. What is your position on this?
That is a quite difficult question. I am inclined to believe that everything depends on a particular person and their personality, including psychological peculiarities and emotional state. It is important not to torture yourself with guilt all the time for watching stories for three hours today. And tomorrow you will read a book for three hours, the day after tomorrow you will have a great catch-up with friends, and so on. Anything can happen. I feel the issue of nurturing some healthy attitude within yourself is important here. If you start fighting with yourself, nothing good will ever come out of it. And you really start to grow this addiction for yourself. I am not personally in favour of limiting myself timewise, setting timers for myself, because I feel this only increases my overall anxiety. This is some form of violence. You rather need to start by fully understanding what is on these social networks and within yourself that makes you uncomfortable. The underlying reasons are always much deeper than the textbook aspects. With no social networks and no news, something else would be causing the same feelings in us. That is, people will still stumble over their problem, no matter how it presents itself.
Another thing is that there are some topics on social networks that bring people to conflict and life-changing experiences. But this is how human society works – there are different positions there, and when your friends suddenly go crazy, you perceive it quite painfully. On the other hand, on the same social networks, for example, there is a huge mutual assistance, charity fees. There, people meet and fall in love, and there, you can get huge support, even just by writing that you are feeling pretty bad. Addiction to likes, vanity, is certainly a thing, but it helps you look at your own shortcomings and somehow dig deeper within yourself. We shouldn't always blame external circumstances for everything. It is better to find the real reasons; that is more effective and, most importantly, more exciting.
What are some of the features of media literacy training in Russia? For example, judging by the polls, our country is the leader in distrust of the same experts, from virologists to climate experts. There was also a study that revealed that the Russian segments of some social networks are characterised by increased toxicity. Is this all true?
Given the United States’ history with post-truth, elections, hackers, QAnon, and others, it is difficult to say that we have a more toxic cyber environment. I'm no expert on the United States at all, but it seems to me that the average toxicity level in a hospital in peak situations is about the same. People are not as different from each other as we would like to think. Although, of course, there is a peculiarity in the way social networks are used, in one respect, and in the way it is customary in society to communicate, in the other. If we have way too much passive aggression and depreciation, this will manifest itself both on the street and on social networks. It is just more prevalent on social networks because there is written language there. And then the people on the street are strangers to you, but here, everyone is connected to everyone, and this adds to the seriousness of what is happening.
As for the media literacy level, it is a bit difficult to say. We are certainly lagging behind in terms of institutionalisation behind European countries, where schools offer lessons on media literacy. I would say that we basically have quite a specific media environment and political and legal circumstances. I am referring to the different laws and to how different communities feel. For example, teachers, with whom we work quite a lot in our project, are afraid of absolutely everything, even the young ones. This is because there is a strong administrative pressure, coupled with endless scandals about the fact that a "representative of the holy profession” cannot appear anywhere in a swimsuit, and so on.
There is a big problem of functional literacy in general for both children and adults. It is just an understanding of how life works, plus the ability to analyse any information. For example, distinguishing an expert from a non-expert, even in a scenario where we know that this is obviously an impostor and that is a serious person. For many people, it just doesn't work. And, in other respects, the level of legal awareness is catastrophically low. There is no understanding of how the legal system works, what rights and obligations there are, why and how laws are written, where they apply, and where they do not. And media literacy is only part of this big problem of some overarching helplessness.
There is also such a unique Russian phenomenon as anonymous Telegram channels. And in general, the problem of blurring the line between journalism, propaganda, and activism. Or is this, again, typical for other countries besides Russia?
You know, I now believe that this crisis of the profession is not at all connected with digital and even not so much with the political situation as with the development of classical journalism itself. Russia certainly has its own specifics. But again, let's look at the same US agenda under Trump and how the leading publications behaved, and how they generally positioned themselves as activists in many cases. This is a painful problem for me as I just belong to the old school. But let's be honest, people do not always voluntarily go to defend their position. Instead, they are quite often squeezed out. Meaning that the political circumstances are such that in some cases, it is too cynical and even somewhat dishonest to remain neutral. The fact is that professional journalists often find themselves in this ethical dilemma when professional duty comes into direct conflict with fundamental human ethics... It becomes an extremely challenging task. Nevertheless, each situation is quite unique. I am generally categorically against mixing journalism with an activist. Unfortunately, I admit that there are situations in which such a position is unethical, simply humanly dishonest. The profession in this sense is being devalued, and we do not know whether it will recover later or whether our entire media sphere, including professional codes, will still be revised.
One of your articles contained quite an interesting point that in the Russian case, fake news has become a weapon of “grassroots spontaneous opposition”, meaning some distorted form of combating propaganda.
Yes, this was due to the coronavirus story, which showed a catastrophically low level of trust in the authorities. People are ready to believe anything, even fortune tellers, but not official propaganda, even for a good cause like vaccination. So sometimes, the authorities do something meaningful. We will not talk about how the promotion campaign was built now. It is clear that you can always find shortcomings. Talking of the coronavirus-related restrictions at the beginning of the epidemic, the measures that were put in place in Moscow and other major cities were justified and organised relatively properly. But people simply cannot admit this; they always expect a catch. And the spread of fake news is their vote of no confidence, their referendum, so to speak.
Meaning if you start by making people become accustomed to disinformation for a long time, at the critical moment when you start telling the truth, they will not believe you anymore.
Yes, the boy who cried wolf, if you remember the classic anecdote. It’s the same here. Plus, you know, attending a rally requires courage. And you risk getting hit by a baton or getting fired, for example, if you are a state employee, which is a serious thing, broadly speaking. And spreading fake news that there is no Covid-19 and vaccinations are a hoax is like carrying a safe, “non - political” fig in your pocket.
Could you tell us more about how your training sessions are going? Who is better oriented in terms of media literacy – adults or children?
That's hard to say. The training sessions are designed for teenagers, on the one hand, and for school teachers and in general those who work with children, on the other. We are now launching a line for students based more on argumentation theory than directly on media literacy. We understand that there are digital natives, meaning the generation of children who were born in the smartphone era, and there is a generation of teachers who were there before the Internet. These are undoubtedly different types of attitudes to reality. Older people tend to be more anxious; they are more afraid, especially for their children. There is an alarmism associated with "death groups”, with the dark web and drugs, with the fact that children must be supervised and protected.
We are just working to reduce this anxiety. We try to talk about it, because very few people talk about it with adults at all. One quite interesting aspect is you drop a topic, and it turns out that people are just eager to engage in discussion, they themselves would not even have realised that they had been silent about something significant. Once it begins, this type of conversation leads to all the problem issues being clarified. We seem to somehow convince them that they need not take responsibility for something that falls outside their spheres of influence. It is technically not feasible to supervise what children do on the Internet. Moreover, they are not very confident users themselves, unfortunately, even quite young teachers. Because everyone is afraid. While discussing the problems of teachers in swimsuits and prohibitions, we had a young teacher who exclaimed, "Well, we are also people. We would also like to meet on Tinder!" It was then that I suddenly realised how much it hurt. Young teachers are even more affected – the children, admin members, and the parents themselves can’t even have a personal Tinder for themselves.
Schoolchildren certainly handle all this much better, and are much calmer about it. The main challenge is discussing ethical and psychological issues. For example, bullying is quite a sensitive topic. My colleague was engaging in a debate in Vladivostok, and the young adults almost came to tears when they discovered that they were not being heard, that even their friends did not understand the reasoning and were misconstruing everything. We were somewhat simulating in real life a dispute and conflict situation on social networks. And they realised the communication problem of difficulties in adequately conveying their points of view to the interlocutor or explaining and clearly expressing themselves.
Another thing that strikes me is that they are natives, and to them, information seems to be spontaneously generated on the Internet. That is, they have a missing link, which is the person who uploaded something there. An editor is involved; remember, even Wikipedia has editors who are one way or another responsible for the published information. And although a lot is naturally already being processed by neural networks and algorithms, they still find their place. Because of this, they lack a critical attitude. This is because for them, there is a certain alignment of all sources, and they do not really understand how to prioritise, how to distinguish between a high-quality and a low-quality source.
While the older generation grumbles about "this Internet of yours”, the younger is simply taking it all in.
Yes, there is such a thing. At the same time, there is some misunderstanding when children suddenly start talking about something and the parent begins worrying about having to limit and supervise the child. Everyone in all exchanges experiences this misunderstanding; no one trusts each other.
It turns out that media literacy has many layers, from data verification to emotional intelligence, digital etiquette, and argumentation theory. How do you think this should play out in an ideal world? Do I need to include these disciplines in the school curriculum?
That’s quite a difficult question. Most of my colleagues in various projects believe that media literacy lessons are needed at school. I am also well informed that there are currently attempts to include it either under social studies, or as a separate subject. There are indications that there has even been talk about an educational standard. And I understand my colleagues, and that there is some objective development of the situation, which will inevitably lead to media literacy being included as part of the school curriculum. But I am very careful about this myself. Despite all the benefits, I am afraid that, first, it will be yet another obligation, and second, it will greatly increase the load on schoolchildren, because we are constantly cramming the curriculum with new subjects, and children are unable to cope. And this will only make the programme even more fragmented. Plus it will inevitably carry some ideological burden for us, and not only because there will be some control from above, but simply because we are in short supply of qualified professionals and teachers who are able to teach. And who will teach these teachers and what in the refresher courses on this subject? In some regions, the topic of spying on children, what they do on the Internet, is quite popular. This surveillance is introduced using an administrative resource. All this quite frankly scares me out of my wits.
I don't know how you feel about futurology, but what will be the next big thing in the media world, the next Gutenberg machine?
Revolutions are only few and far between. There is always some period of stabilisation. As such, I watch what is happening and think when it will all become established and in what state. You cannot always accelerate this progress. People are naturally unable to self-update all the time. There must be some kind of shrinkage, tamping. Because see, from the transition from scrolls to codices (and this was one of the important stages in the development of media as we have it today that influenced how people organised and processed information in their minds, and how they packaged and transmitted knowledge), it was several centuries before the invention of the printing press, which happened relatively recently in the 15th century. What followed was a long break, until the telegraph, radio and television appeared, which ushered in a new electronic age. Thereafter, after a much shorter interval, we experienced the digital revolution.
I really do not think people are able to digest so many changes in such a short period of time successfully. Technologies will certainly develop (see the possible scenarios in the "Black Mirror" or in some more positive stories), but this will all be one gigantic trend that began not even with the invention of the Internet, but with when it appeared in every home. This happened at the turn of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, give or take. This is one big trend that we have seen so far. I strongly believe the attempts to dwarf the historical process to be unnecessary.