It’s a compelling idea: We can combat foreign interference in U.S. elections through media literacy. Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SHIELD Act, which included an amendment to commission a study of Americans’ media literacy skills. I was thrilled. As I have been shouting from the rooftops since 2016, it is essential to advance people’s media literacy competencies as we approach the 2020 Presidential election.

The SHIELD ACT (which stands for Stopping Harmful Interference in Elections for a Lasting Democracy), is a comprehensive bill to combat foreign interference in the United States political system. The SHIELD Act includes several provisions to protect the U.S. political system from foreign interference. Specifically, the bill will:

  • Require political campaigns and committees to report offers of campaign assistance from foreign governments to the FBI
  • Ensure online political advertisements are covered by the same rules and have the same level of transparency as broadcast advertisements
  • Close loopholes permitting foreign nationals and governments to spend money in our elections
  • Prohibit anyone from providing false information about voting rules and qualifications
  • Direct the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to conduct a study on Americans’ media literacy skills.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where I hope it will be passed. This law will improve the quality of political propaganda in the next election and help us better understand how well the American populace is able to critically evaluate news sources, identify false information, and recognize propaganda techniques.

Media literacy has been gaining traction in Washington DC as defense experts readily agree that that improving media literacy is one of the most effective ways to combat foreign influence campaigns. Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently introduced the Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy Act to strengthen media literacy and disinformation education. This is the the next law that needed to be passed immediately.

Media literacy researchers and educators who work with adults and youth know what the FEC research will reveal. Most Americans are not good at asking critical questions about the media they consume, even when they are specifically asked to analyze it. As a teacher educator, I am aware that Americans get little exposure to media literacy education even when they attend college or university.

The compelling imagery, great stories and feelings, and the relevance of the content of movies, social media, news and journalism, and advertising overwhelm the practice of asking critical questions about what you watch, see and read. It takes practice to automatically ask, “Who’s the author? What’s the purpose? What’s the point of view?

With Russian operatives continuing their social media campaigns to influence voters ahead of the 2020 elections, there is no time to lose. “We must do all we can to secure our elections and restore confidence in the integrity of our democracy,” explained Representative Langevin. He said, “The ability to recognize misinformation is one the best tools for overcoming foreign influence attempts, and it is vital for us to understand how well-equipped the American public is to combat this ongoing threat.”

There’s never been a more urgent time to advance media literacy and digital citizenship in American schools. Learning to recognize and resist propaganda and disinformation is an essential dimension of education in a digital age. After all, it is the only long-term strategy that embodies our country’s vital democratic traditions of robust dialogue and debate in the marketplace of ideas.

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