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German journalists, academics and policymakers signed a confidentiality agreement when they attended a Facebook meeting in Germany about news literacy as an alternative to the new Internet regulation regarding online hate speech. This timely essay argues that news literacy can never be considered a substitute for platform regulation. Indeed, Americans have a lot to learn from the German approach.

Can News Literacy Substitute for Internet Regulation in Germany?

Around the world, the rise of fake news, propaganda and disinformation has made it obvious that the current information landscape poses grave threats to democratic self-governance. The spread of politically-motivated lies and rumors after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s failure to form a government is only the latest example. Last week, I talked with high school and college students in Mainz, Germany to introduce them to media literacy education. We talked about the new German law about online hate speech and the new challenges posed by Internet and social media platforms.

Facebook’s public relations folks are working overtime in Germany right now. Facebook seems to believe that, with an army of fact-checkers and the use of content labels, they can create an algorithmic fix so that troublesome, manipulative or inaccurate content doesn’t get seen or spread by too many people.

Now Facebook wants journalists and other thought leaders to believe that if news literacy programs are made available to people, there would be no need to institute punitive laws, like the one which went into effect October 1. After all, platforms could now face a $50 million fine from the German government if hate speech content is not removed from the platform within 48 hours.

In response to the German law, Facebook has hatched an optimistic plan. It sounds good: advance news literacy as a viable alternative to stricter laws. Journalists love the idea. After all, people who use effective strategies to find and select quality journalism read and view deeply. They don’t merely graze on an endless array of superficial snippets and blog posts.

If people were media literate, they would not tricked by clickbait and they would recognize sponsored content. They would value quality journalism and abhor junk news. They would be knowledgeable about how content spreads virally and they would examine the sources of information to identify biased points of view. Most importantly, they would be responsible creators themselves, not just consumers. They would make substantial good-faith efforts to ensure that the content they create and share themselves is accurate, fair and socially responsible.

Decreasing the Need for Stricter Laws?

This plan seems to be vastly superior to media regulation, which everyone agrees can be tricky. Media regulation can backfire, as we have seen in the U.S. where well-intended laws like the Children’s Television Act of 1990 actually led to a reduction in the quality and quantity of media aimed to meet the educational and information needs of children.

Too much media regulation ruins democracy, enabling autocratic leaders to exert repressive control of information and entertainment content, like in China and Turkey, where censorship has distorted public opinion, contributed to dangerous nationalistic rhetoric and disabled the public sphere. When any one entity (government or business) can censor speech, this limits the public’s ability to use dialogue and debate in the development of practical solutions to social problems.

Facebook is a aware that a potential backfire of this new German law is that legitimate expression may be censored as the company tries to avoid paying the fine.

But too little media regulation is also dangerous. Checks and balances are increasingly important because today, platforms hold enormous political and economic power in their vast storehouses of personal data on every man, woman and child. Algorithm literacy (as part of media literacy) can help people understand how data we provide to these platforms is being used in ways that makes digital tools more useful while limiting exposure to the marketplace of ideas.

I am glad that German government officials have designed a law that tries to balance the enormous power of platforms with appropriate forms of social responsibility that reflect the deep values of the society.

But truthfully, the German public will not be able to evaluate the true merits and disadvantages of this new regulation if they are not media literate. They will be inevitably drawn to the pull of propaganda created by Facebook, which vastly oversimplifies complex realities when it comes to news media literacy education.

Learning News Literacy in and out of School

In my visits with German high school and college students, I learned that only a tiny fraction of learners had any exposure at all to instructional strategies for thinking critically about news, advertising and entertainment. The practice of “asking critical questions about what you watch, see and read” is not generally activated in German schools or applied to the forms of media that learners experience in daily life, like news stories, social media posts, memes, podcasts, infographics, polls, or documentary videos.

In Germany, even the basic use of the Internet in the classroom –for general informational or educational purposes– is far behind contemporary practices in the U.S., Canada, England, Singapore, Finland and other countries. Understandably, German educators and thought leaders have deep concerns about centralized control of personal data in the hands of a powerful few.

As a result, students get a lot of rhetoric about the dangers of social media but far less real education. For example, although many have shared photos on social media platforms outside of school, few German students get the experience of discussing the complex social responsibilities involved in being a digital author.

Today, such dialogues must be an essential part of learning. The skills of critical analysis of media and the ability to compose media are equally vital competencies for being a citizen in a democratic society. When a student gets to interview an expert to create a news story or create a short YouTube video documentary to document their learning of science or history, they gain confidence in self-expression. They learn how deadline pressure can affect the quality of media content. They discover the need to use attention-getting techniques to ensure that the message is appealing and the audience sticks around to read, watch, or listen.

Where to Start

This form of learning needs to begin in the elementary grades. It also has to be repeatedly practiced in middle school and high school.  News and media literacy competencies can’t be developed in a single educational session. You can’t become media literate by listening to a guest lecture from a journalist describing their reporting practices. News and media literacy competencies should not be conceptualized as a process of suspending one’s judgment to trust blindly in a fact-checker.

To institute news media literacy in schools, a wholesale restructuring of the education process will be needed. This is made more complex by the local decision-making that is at the heart of both the German and American education system.  But this work has to also reach beyond the classroom: parents will need to learn how to introduce media literacy competencies to young children at home in the living room. Adults will need exposure to books, articles, TV programs and community dialogue, across the lifespan, to help build their knowledge and skills.

With a substantial investment in these forms of education, perhaps Facebook could help people develop news and media literacy education programs. But right now it seems like they’re using news  literacy as a cheap publicity stunt to take the steam out of the new German law.

It’s foolish to think of news literacy as a magic bullet that obviates the need for the regulation of platforms where dangerous hate speech can flourish. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, when every citizen is media literate, we can imagine that the regulation of platforms, press and media will no longer be needed. As an optimist, I believe this is a real possibility. But until then, news literacy should not be considered as an alternative to media regulation.

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