In spite of the many disagreements over free speech and the need for legislation – also summarised as the two main themes throughout the public hearings by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods (ST, Mar. 30) – the 10-member committee chaired by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong as well as the 65 local and overseas witnesses seem to at least agree on one solution: Media literacy.
In fact, of the 63 written submissions available on the microsite (the committee received a total of 170 written representations), media literacy or public education was mentioned by all but about 12 or 13 submissions. Which means approximately 80 per cent of the submissions made such references. That media literacy – as a non-legal measure – did not feature as prominently during the hearings could stem from the belief that some form of legislation is needed. Even so, references to media literacy are often qualified as a long-term goal, or that agencies such as the Media Literacy Council (MLC) are already well-positioned to do so, with the implication that it is an issue we can come back to later. Five written representations, I thought, went into some substantive details: Professor Alton Chua, freelance journalist and writer Kirsten Han, senior research fellow Dr. Carol Soon and research assistant Mr. Shawn Goh, Professor Eugene Tan, as well as Roses for Peace.
Yet this assumption that media literacy is the long-term panacea for falsehoods in general remains unchallenged. And problematically too it also avoids the harder and more meaningful questions of how exactly to teach or to inculcate media literacy, and how the effectiveness of these programmes can be determined. After all, promoting such discourse can be unsettling, especially when notions of what constitutes “truth” are confronted. In the Singaporean context, however, the much-needed discourse on media literacy and public education can be guided by three related questions: First, the extent to which existing media literacy programmes been effective (or not); second, whether we are willing to re-examine traditional approaches to media literacy as we know it, while acknowledging instances of failure; and third, how we might involve teachers and their schools – who were hardly represented in this consultative process – more constructively in the future.
In other words media literacy as a long-term goal does not mean it should only be considered by the government down the road. I too agree that media literacy is important – and deserved greater attention in the written representations and during the eight days of public hearings – but both its definition and its programmes must be specified and evaluated in much greater detail.
How effective are our media literacy programmes?
Existing programmes in general rarely go beyond superficial information sessions, with even fewer rigorous measures on the effectiveness of programmes; that is, did participants actually benefit from these sessions? Moreover with deliberate online falsehoods, the pedagogies are mostly dichotomous: Is this true or false? Real news or “fake news”? A news source, website, or search engine being more trustworthy than its counterparts? The MLC, for example, offers public awareness and education programmes such as training workshops and online resources, and in its written representation the National Library Board (NLB) detailed the aims of its SURE (Source, Understand, Research, and Evaluate) campaign. One of the better-known non-profit organisation which advocates for cyber wellness and new media literacy in particular, TOUCH Cyber Wellness, also organises assembly talks, classroom workshops, and workshops for adults.
Most measures of effectiveness, however, and I suspect, are still limited to post-event satisfaction surveys (“Did you enjoy / learn from the session today?”) or simple pre-post evaluations (asking participants the same or a similar set of content questions before and after the session, and attributing the difference in scores – if any – to the session), which are unfortunately riddled with social desirability or self-response biases and furthermore provide no indication on long-term effects. Because there is no way of telling if a participant of the NLB campaign puts into actual practice the SURE framework, we cannot say with confidence that existing media literacy programmes are working.
Part of the problem stems from both the imprecise definition and the extensive nature of media literacy. Professor Tan drew upon the description used by the Info-communications Media Development Authority, that media literacy “enables us to comprehend, contextualise, and critically evaluate information, as well as to create and communicate content effectively across digital media platforms”. Dr. Soon and Mr. Goh instead spoke of “critical literacy”, defining it as going beyond recognising characteristics of online falsehoods to include:
“Questioning the content (validity of arguments and substantiation by evidence), the source (who produces the message) and the motivations of the source (e.g., political or economic). Cultivating critical literacy is also about making people more aware of how the online space works, and how effects such as source-layering and echo chambers capitalise on individuals’ cognitive biases and hinder their assessment of the veracity of the information they encounter online”.
These aforementioned programmes or proposals are well-intentioned, yet notwithstanding the persistent questions of effectiveness they underestimate the entrenchment of cognitive biases, and we therefore overestimate not only our own abilities to discern misinformation or disinformation on the Internet but also our abilities to educate (young) Singaporeans. Even if Dr. Soon and Mr. Goh’s suggestion to embed critical literacy into the core curriculum of our education system is accepted, it is not clear how source-layering and echo chambers and the assessment of online information can be properly taught. And if their students, in the first place, would be receptive.
Appreciate “epistemological differences”
It is a laundry list of skills to teach and to learn, and even NLB’s SURE information literacy campaign is not as straightforward too:
Source: “Look at its origins. Is it trustworthy?: Make sure that the source of information is credible and reliable”;
Understand: “Know what you’re reading. Search for clarity: Look for facts rather than opinions”;
Research: “Dig deeper. Go beyond the initial source: Investigate thoroughly before making a conclusion, check and compare with multiple sources”; as well as
Evaluate: “Find the balance. Exercise fair judgement: Look from different angles – there are at least two sides to a story”.
“Source(s)” is referenced four times in this short excerpt, and the underlying premise is that if individuals interrogate where evidence or information is produced, they would consequently be more discerning. In some American schools or programmes, social media scholar danah boyd observed, “Students are asked to distinguish between CNN and Fox. Or to identify bias in a news story. When tech is involved, it often comes in the form of ‘don’t trust Wikipedia; use Google’”. (In Singapore, one can imagine a convenient comparison between the mainstream media and the “alternative” online news sites). Yet teaching individuals how to check facts and to assess sources will not necessarily be productive when there is distrust of the media (according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, the average trust in the media is 52 per cent, the lowest compared to the government, the business, and NGOs, in that order), and when this distrust is taken advantage of by actors who – by weaponising critical thinking as well as “the very act of asking questions” – propagate misinformation or disinformation.
But what is this weaponisation that boyd speaks of? Just last month she delivered the speech “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?” (which can be read and watched online), during which she said some young people – who are taught through media literacy programmes to question or to doubt what they read – turn to online communities to ask these questions. And some of these communities then advance the proposition that the institutions of “education and media are designed to deceive [individuals] into progressive propaganda”. This is thus an information landscape, she added, “where the very tools that people use to make sense of the world around them have been strategically perverted by other people who believe themselves to be resisting the same powerful actors that we normally seek to critique”.
These acts of planting and weaponising seeds of doubt – Did a lawyer from the People’s Action Party save the accused in the City Harvest case from harsher punishments? Did a presidential hopeful comment that the hijab was not part of the Malay dress code before the 1970s? Did a supermarket sell jasmine fragrant rice made of plastic? – do not go away immediately even if the falsehoods are retracted and corrected. In fact, the parties involved or even the media could be blamed for tardiness, or for not being forthcoming in other instances.
At the heart of this concerns are epistemological differences, over how “truth” is derived at. In this vein the institutions of education and media are the targets of the aforementioned weaponisation precisely because they seek to actively define what is true or not. boyd also said: “If we’re not careful, ‘media literacy’ and ‘critical thinking’ will simply be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology. Right now, the conversation around fact-checking has already devolved to suggest that there’s only one truth. And we have to recognise that there are plenty of students who are taught that there’s only one legitimate way of knowing, one accepted worldview”.
Bringing teachers and schools into the fold
This practice of appreciating epistemological differences, of understanding why the same piece of content or information is interpreted differently by different people, is nevertheless difficult work. And since confirmation biases lead us to search for “evidence” which confirm our priors and conversely to reject contrarian perspectives, to have media literacy taught or inculcated in such a manner can be very unsettling. In a broader sense there is a cultural and a structural problem in Singapore too: Culturally, the stigma attached to making mistakes or being wrong prevents many from articulating their views, even though acknowledging and processing them are important; structurally, with a growing class divide, students are more likely to interact with like-minded peers than with others of dissimilar backgrounds.
And while teachers and their schools are viewed as the most appropriate platforms for such media literacy programmes, they were hardly represented during the public hearings by the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. As a result, again, we know little about the effectiveness of programmes they are tasked to administer, and – more significantly – we know little about their interactions with students. When reflecting on my own academic experience, the more effective media literacy programmes appear to share a few features:
1. There must be an experience of discomfort. Feelings of cognitive dissonance – such as when an opinion is challenged, when one has to respond thereafter, or when one has to challenge another opinion – is necessary to get one accustomed to dissimilar views;
2. Turn information sessions into discursive ones. Existing initiatives by the MLC, the NLB, and TOUCH Cyber Wellness seem to be premised upon the dissemination of content – what to do, and what not to do; what to believe, and what not to believe – which as boyd alluded to may reduce the conversation around fact-checking or source-checking “to suggest that there’s only one truth”
3. Participate through content creation. To understand sources and how narratives can be weaponised, students could be tasked to create their own news content or to take an active interest in events within their schools and neighbourhoods. Student-run publications, in addition to online commentaries or blogs penned by students, are good examples. I agree with Miss Han’s argument that “media literacy also needs to be about participation, and how one takes part in civic and political life through the media”;
4. Find that sweet spot between debate programmes and simulation conferences. The intent is to go beyond the Internet to foster face-to-face, substantive interactions between students, and through these interactions, as boyd said, students should be helped to understand their own psychology or biases and ultimately to “recognise their own fault lines, not the fault lines of the media landscape around them”. Compared to debates, simulation conferences – such as the Model United Nations conference we run – are less rigorous but more accessible, but admittedly we have yet to find a way to use it to strengthen critical thinking and cognition; and
5. Complement the existing school curriculum. With students already burdened with many assignments and expectations, framing media literacy as a co-curricular exercise may diminish its comparative importance, or may even lead students to disregard it. The critical reading and analysis of news articles – through English or General Paper classes, for instance – should be further emphasised.
But I am not an educator, and furthermore since I have limited facilitation and classroom knowledge, the intent is not to presumptuously specify the exact features of an ideal programme. Rather, it is a call for more productive discourse on media literacy and its effectiveness.
Because if we can agree the media literacy is desired, then that consensus – amidst the persistent disagreements over free speech and the need for legislation – should be a starting point to first evaluate the state of existing programmes and to improve upon them, before more concerted efforts to engage teachers. Otherwise, if we settle for the status quo and choose instead to defer these conversations and efforts to the future, the consequent absence of progress will only render Singapore more vulnerable to any form of falsehoods.