In July 2022, David Keppler, writing for the Associated Press, warned that as “trust wanes, conspiracy theories rise,” and people in the U.S. are increasingly “rejecting what they hear from scientists, journalists or public officials.” After years of complicating and exacerbating the threats posed by disinformation through failed policies of censorship, the federal government seems to be coming to the realization that education is the best hope for mitigating the influence of disinformation on a democracy. As Keppler’s article was being published, The Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act & The Veterans Online Information and Cybersecurity Empowerment Act were introduced by members of the U.S. Congress to provide federal aid to media literacy education in the U.S.
Keppler’s article typified the moral panic over fake news, or disinformation, which began during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and was magnified during Donald Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 global pandemic. In response to these fears, the federal government and private industry have collaborated to determine what is truth for the public. Through public denouncements, hearings, and the threat of regulation and or trust-busting, federal lawmakers have repeatedly pressured Big Tech to remove or censor content from their platforms that they deem false.
Meanwhile, companies such as Facebook and Newsguard, have capitalized on the moral panic, collaborating with people from the military-intelligence community to create problematic fact checking tools that purportedly determine fact from fiction for citizens. Big-tech has been found to not only remove false content from their platforms, but accurate content as well. For example, in October 2020, Facebook and Twitter famously removed a New York Post story from its platform about Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, even though the story was not false, it was unverified. The removal later proved to be unwarranted as it authenticated by other media outlets including The Daily Mail and The Washington Post.
For its part, the federal government created a Disinformation Governance Board (DGB) in 2022 that was headed by at first Nina Jankowicz who resigned in the face of public pressure, and then by former head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. Despite reassurances from the corporate media that only conservatives were spreading false information about the board, pundits on both the left and the right panned it as reminiscent of The Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. The DGB, which the New York Times claimed would “monitor national security threats caused by the spread of dangerous disinformation,” was discontinued after objections across the political spectrum became difficult to ignore.
Strategies that seek to censor content or define truth by decree are anti-democratic and do nothing to prepare citizens to determine the veracity of messaging contents. They do, however, complicate and worsen the spread of false information while simultaneously empowering known fake news producers: governments, industry, political parties, and establishment media outlets.
This has long been known by education scholars who have argued that critical news literacy education was the best antidote to disinformation. In July 2022, two congressional bills aimed to do just that were proposed: The Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act & The Veterans Online Information and Cybersecurity Empowerment Act. Collectively, they would provide $40 million to federal agencies to fund education programs to improve media literacy for American students from kindergarten through high school and for military veterans.
For decades, media literacy practitioners, scholars, and policy makers have worked tirelessly to make citizens aware of the existence and importance of media literacy education. Their goal was to do what countless other nations have done over the last forty years: add media literacy education to the curriculum in the U.S. The post-2016 moral panic over fake news advanced those efforts making Americans aware of the necessity of media literacy education.
The Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act & The Veterans Online Information and Cybersecurity Empowerment Act are promising steps toward funding media literacy education in U.S. schools. However, advocates need to be cautious that the bills do not become yet another opportunity for government and private industry to control information under the auspices of fighting fake news and promoting truth. Educators must ensure that they are offering students a critical news literacy not a corporate news literacy. Corporate-driven media—such as Facebook, Google, and Nickelodeon—discourages critical thinking while enhancing brand awareness and socializing students to adopt corporate ideologies.
Conversely, critical news literacy, includes an analysis of power. It teaches students how to think like journalists, evaluate and analyze sources, separate fact from opinion, interrogate the production process, and investigate the politics of representation. According to scholars Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, critical media literacy education focuses “on ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality; incorporating alternative media production; and expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, and pleasure.” Critical news literacy education not only empowers students to determine the veracity of information, but to interrogate the power dynamics expressed in media content.
Education is the most promising solution to disinformation. It has much more promise than recent attempts to empower known fake news producers – government, corporations, political parties, and media outlets – to determine what is truth. Rather than empower entities or individuals to determine the veracity of information for its citizens, the U.S. would be wise to pass these bills so teachers and schools can empower the citizenry to determine fact from fiction for themselves. For their part, educators must resist corporate hegemony in the classroom. A critical news literacy education should be administered by well-trained educators whose goal is to teach students how to think, not what to think. These bills could be an important step in making these goals a reality.