Opinion: it's hugely important to get people of all ages to check the reliability of the information they see, read or hear across any media platform

Trust in the quality and reliability of news and media information has undergone unprecedented challenge in recent times, particularly since 2016 and the surprise outcomes of the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. While politics and the democratic process has been the main stage on which this crisis of confidence has played out, increasing levels of mistrust have spread to other sectors such as healthcare, the environment, financial services and the technology sector more generally.

A Eurobarometer survey in 2018 found that more than 85% of Europeans think that misinformation or "fake news" is a problem in their country. Less than half (47%) of Europeans say they now trust online newspapers and magazines, and lower proportions trust video hosting websites and podcasts (27%) or online social networks and messaging apps (26%).  Most still say they trust traditional media sources, though with just 63% expressing confidence in printed media and newspapers, this is far from universal.

This information crisis – as described by the UK’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission  –  has led to confusion and cynicism among citizens who are no longer sure of what is true or who to believe. It has resulted in a fragmentation of the wider public sphere as people become ever more divided into separate publics with parallel narratives of what is true. This ultimately contributes to a much deeper malaise in society whereby citizens become disengaged from mainstream institutions and lose faith in the democratic process.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Brian O'Neill discusses the Be Media Smart campaign 

Can we regulate our way out of the fake news crisis?

Numerous calls not surprisingly have been made for the introduction of new forms of regulation to bring some order to this increasingly "polluted" information environment, to quote a recent report for the Council of Europe. Why, for instance, should newspapers and broadcast media be subject to strict content or conduct codes while none apparently apply to online platforms?

Could an Independent Platform Regulator, as recommended by the House of Commons Select Committee or an Online Safety Commissioner, as proposed by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton  in his consultation on Regulation of Harmful Content on Online Platforms, be the answer to bring about greater civility and ensure compliance with societally agreed standards? Better governance may indeed emerge over time, but there is unlikely to ever be a single solution to a problem that has such complex roots and is of such a global scale.

More urgent is the need to provide citizens with the skills and competencies – the basics of media literacy – that will enable them to make informed decisions about the media content and services that they consume, create, and disseminate across all platforms. These tools will equip citizens to be better able to discriminate when it comes to information that is important in their lives.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week. Carole Coleman on US President Trump’s regular use of the term "Fake News" and the challenges it presents to journalists and news producer

Be Media Smart

Media Literacy Ireland (MLI) is a network which brings together individuals and organisations committed to principles of media literacy. The network is behind the Be Media Smart public awareness campaign currently underway to coincide with European Media Literacy Week. The aim of the campaign is to encourage people of all ages to Stop, Think, and Check that information they see, read or hear across any media platform is reliable.

Being media smart in this context refers to critical thinking skills that will help media users to be more attuned to the nature of the information around them. Information is everywhere and sometimes it can be difficult to judge how accurate or reliable information is. False information or disinformation can be deliberately created to mislead with the aim of influencing them or swaying public opinion. Inaccurate information or misinformation which can be the result of a genuine mistake can also spread with incredible speed across online platforms creating confusion and uncertainty. 

Media literacy empowers users by enabling them to ask questions as to where their information comes from, and how to recognise information that might not be reliable. Ultimately, being media smart means bringing the same level of care to one’s information sources as one would for food provenance or any other important aspect of contemporary life.

Why we need media literacy skills

The Be Media Smart campaign follows in a long line of advocacy for media literacy but now with added urgency given the impact that disinformation has on the political environment. For example, UNESCO has long advocated comprehensive media education to prepare citizens for life in an age where media are omnipresent.   

When debating the transition to digital broadcasting in the early 2000s, the European Parliament insisted that media literacy is a right for all Europeans. This ultimately led to its inclusion within the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the European Union’s overarching legislative framework for media. The 2018 revision of this directive places even more importance on the development of media literacy, especially in the context of our changing information landscape, and calls for much greater cross-sector collaboration on an issue that doesn't recognise traditional boundaries 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, BAI chief executive Michael O'Keeffe on media literacy courses in schools

More recently, the Council of Europe has argued strongly that, without exception, the multi-literacy skills required for engaging with contemporary information flows are essential for the effective functioning of democracy and human rights.

While the debate continues about how best to shape an accountable, responsible and trustworthy media sphere, the willingness and ability of citizens to access information and participate effectively through the media platforms available to them is paramount. For this, media literacy is essential and is likely to be more enduring and effective than almost any other intervention.

Disinformation clearly did not begin in the digital age. In her timeless essay, Truth and Politics, Hannah Arendt observed that manipulation of information, distortion of the truth, deliberate falsehoods and lies have long been part of the political repertoire.

It is the decline in or absence of any form of media literacy with a corresponding remoteness and "illegibility" of the media system that contributes to the crisis.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ