By Stéphane Goldstein
On 8 April, the UK Government published its long-awaited White Paper on Online Harms. Its scope is ambitious and it contains many far-reaching ideas, particularly about the role of online platforms in monitoring, reporting and curtailing online behaviours deemed unacceptable or dangerous, if not illegal. It also proposes a new regulator to ensure compliance with requirements. Much has already been made about the White Paper’s suggestions on making social media executives liable for harmful content distributed on their platforms. Children’s charities such as NSPCC have welcomed the proposals to ensure young people’s online safety. However, I’d like to focus on what the White Paper says about ‘empowering users’ (see section 9, page 85), as this is the part of the document that addresses educational rather than technical or regulatory issues, and where the Government considers its online media and digital literacy strategy.
Here, the White Paper sets the scene by stating that “all users, children and adults, should be empowered to understand and manage risks so that they can stay safe online” (paragraph 9.1). But although the issue is framed in terms of risk management, there is a recognition that skills are needed not only to spot online dangers, but more broadly to appraise information critically and to distinguish between facts and opinions (paragraph 9.12). In the context of countering the dangers of disinformation, that is an important priority to recognise. The path proposed for addressing this is a national media literacy strategy, of which more below.
The White Paper outlines some of what has been achieved to date, and affirms that Government has taken steps to address digital literacy (to an extent, it uses that term interchangeably with media literacy) in the relevant areas of the school curriculum. It goes on to state airily that children are getting high quality education at school to develop their digital literacy. That is questionable, and the way that the curriculum addresses these matters is haphazard to say the least. Moreover, the White Paper doesn’t really elaborate on how the education system has delivered in terms of making young people more media/digitally literate, other than talking briefly about how relationships education contributes to online safety, and about the principles of e-safety particularly in the computing curriculum. That is all and well, but doesn’t go to the heart of the matter concerning critical appraisal of information.
At the same time, the White Paper highlights a range of recent developments that are providing some answers and practical solutions. These include:
- The House of Commons DCMS Select Committee report on disinformation and fake news, which called for digital literacy to be the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths (the White Paper conveniently ignores that the Government rejected that particular recommendation).
- The Cairncross review on a sustainable future for journalism, which recommended that the Government should develop a media literacy strategy, to identify gaps in provision and opportunities for collaborative working – ideas that the White Paper appear to have taken on board.
- The NewsWise initiative, aimed at encouraging 9-11 year olds to think more critically about the news content that they encounter.
- The BBC Young Reporter project, which works with 11-18 year olds in schools, colleges and youth organisations to help them navigate news and current affairs and give them the skills to produce their own reports and share story ideas about what matters to them.
These are just a few examples of worthy initiatives and resources, but the White Paper recognises that there are gaps in efforts to encourage and develop media and digital literacy – particularly, beyond the school education system, for adults and parents (paragraph 9.14). As the document states, “for adults, there is insufficient messaging or resources covering online media literacy. There is a need for further work to address issues such as the sharing of disinformation, catfishing (i.e. luring someone into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona), attacks on women online (particularly public figures), and the differing needs of people with disabilities when navigating information. We also recognise the need for improved coordination of activity” (paragraph 9.16).
A media literacy strategy
So, this is the context for the proposed national media literacy strategy, with the aim of developing measures that would address objectives such as:
- Ensuring that users can be more resilient in dealing with mis- and disinformation, including in relation to democratic processes and representation.
- Equipping people to recognise and deal with a range of deceptive and malicious behaviours online, including catfishing, grooming and extremism.
- Ensuring people with disabilities are not excluded from digital literacy education and support.
- Developing media literacy approaches to tackling violence against women and girls online.
A comprehensive mapping exercise would precede the strategy, to identify what actions are already underway and to determine its objectives (paragraph 9.19). This exercise would involve convening representatives from a wide range of stakeholders; importantly, the White Paper specifies that these would include libraries.
The other pillar of the proposed approach is the role of the new independent regulator, mentioned above. A part of this role would be to promote online media literacy – although the White Paper does not spell how this would be achieved, nor how it would complement the work that Ofcom currently undertakes in this area. And the White Paper also makes it clear that the regulator would not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online.
We might thus expect to see some movement in the coming months. For now, Government is consulting on the White Paper proposals, with a response deadline on 1 July 2019. And even though information literacy is not mentioned explicitly, what is said about media and digital literacy amounts to much the same thing.
Will the strategy deliver? It’s too early to say, but at least there is high-level recognition of the issues, and I can only hope that good intentions will be followed by practical action across the machinery of Government and beyond; and crucially, that the urgency of the challenge will also be recognised. I hope too that Government and other players will be responsive and nimble in adapting their strategies, policies, practices and instruments – including with the school curriculum – where the strategy warrants this.
Photo: Science and Industry Museum, Manchester – Stéphane Goldstein, Creative Commons CC BY-NC