As director of Data & Society Research Institute and author of It’s Complicated, danah boyd has a conflicted relationship with the media literacy community as is revealed in her post, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?”
Indeed, researchers have found that media literacy can backfire when it’s taught badly. And because the effective deployment of the pedagogy of media literacy requires substantial knowledge, skills and habits of mind, it’s not always done well, as researchers have found that when media literacy is taught badly, it can have unintended consequences.
But danah boyd makes no such assertion about the need for media literacy to be taught well. In fact, the essay contains not a single reference to media literacy pedagogy or practice. Instead, she merely hints that perhaps media literacy is responsible for the growing levels of tribalization and polarization that is itself the result of a culture of critique and a mistrust of authority, where experience is valued over expertise and personal responsibility is valorized.
And while it’s important to explore factors that have contributed to the problem of both apathy and political polarization, pinning media literacy education as the problem seems a bit misplaced. This seems, at face value, to be a straw man argument. Why?
1. Media literacy educators are not responsible for the decline in trust in authority and expertise. Of course, the postmodernists among us might feel a twinge of guilt, but even they were just recognizing and describing the epistemological shifts resulting from the changing shape of information and knowledge due to the rise of the Internet. When the editorial gates come down, power-knowledge dynamics are altered.
2. Neither are media literacy educators to be held responsible for the culture of critique, which has been rising since the Vietnam Era when we learned that experts abuse their power in ways that require people to “ask critical questions about what they see, watch, read and listen to.” The culture of critique is a product of the Enlightenment; media literacy educators merely seek to recover what John Milton, John Locke and others have said about respecting the integrity and dignity of the individual and the powers of the human mind.
3. And media literacy educators did not lead people to trust their experience over expertise: actually this social phenomenon is at least partly a response to the glut of information, as Rushkoff and other critics have explained. Media literacy educators, with their focus on evidence and reasoned argument, value expertise even as we point out that expertise is itself a social construction. It’s a cheap shot of sorts to claim that kids who trust Google over Wikipedia have learned to do so from their teachers.
But that headline, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” sure creates a buzz. You got my attention, danah. By using that time-honored device of bashing ideas to call attention to oneself, you suggest an “us-or-them” framing that unfairly places the blame on those grassroots souls, working individually and collaboratively under impossible conditions (like K12 schools and underfunded public universities and non-profit organizations) to create learning experiences that help people to critically analyze and create media through media literacy education. From my point of view, there are far better ways to build coalitions and advance new ideas than writing essays. But, to your credit, danah, you provoked a response.
But we in the media literacy education communication are educators, researchers and activists, not pundits who use clickbait headlines to push half-baked ideas. There’s a place for pundits, of course, and lord knows we value the gigantic megaphone and the access to Silicon Valley funders (oh, I mean thought leaders), which even makes some of us workers-in-the-field quite envious. But media literacy educators aim for genuine dialogue and discussion to advance our ideas. See the conversation with Paul Mihailidis and D.C. Vito on our response to danah’s provocation, below. And let’s keep talking about these ideas on the Flipgrid here: https://flipgrid.com/5f64ba