Just before the New Hampshire primary, a fake, AI generated robocall posing as President Biden sowed confusion among voters when it called thousands of New Hampshire residents and told them not to vote. The prevalence of viral fake news and the emergence of artificial intelligence in creating fake and deepfake content would be troubling on its own, but coming during an election year, media literacy and critical thinking skills have become more important than ever. GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke about the importance of media literacy with Allison Butler, co-director of the nonprofit Mass Media Literacy and a senior lecturer at UMass Amherst.
Arun Rath: To start off, it seems like scrutinizing the media we consume has become more difficult every year. I've got to assume that's true, and if it's true, can you give us a sense of how much worse it is now?
Allison Butler: Yeah, I don't disagree with you, it's hard. I think, to be fair, it's always been hard to sort through the media but what we have now is probably a greater quantity coming at us much more quickly, and that makes it feel overwhelming. It is hard to get through a day without hearing the headlines appear to be updated, or having constant feeds on any of our social media sites. We live at a time where most of our young people, and quite frankly, most of our adults, are self-describing that they get their news from social media, which aren't news sites. So, it is difficult times and that's where media literacy comes in.
Arun Rath: Right. And it seems like again, the landscape has changed so much because of social media. I remember I used to do a lot of media reporting for NPR, and I was involved in some stuff to help young people with media literacy, and it feels like all that work that I did is now completely out of date.
Allison Butler: Yeah, I understand that feeling, but I'd want you to give yourself a little bit of credit. It's not totally out of date. We just might need to update some of the ways that we talk about it. If we look at the definitions of media literacy in this country, we're looking at stuff that came to us in the early 1990s, the ability to access, analyze, and produce a variety of media. I think as we are in 2024, we still need to do that work. We just have to maybe look at those terms a little bit differently. What does it mean to access media? We have our own stuff that we choose to use, but we also have the things, particularly for our young people who are in classrooms, that are mandated by their use with digital technology. We have the same skills that we can apply of analysis, only now we just apply them to different and more technologies.
Certainly our relationship with producing media and having young people produce media, they've got to some extent, a greater opportunity at their fingertips, literally with their cell phones, to do that. So how can we kind of take those solid foundational skills and bring them into our current media environment?
Then I would add to that the work that I do, we add on the word critical, like critical media literacy, because we also want to look at power. We want to look at ownership and distribution. How are these texts getting to us? We can analyze what's right in front of us, and that's incredibly valuable, but what many of us are asking to do is to say, "Hey, let's actually think about how these texts and why these texts have come to us" and look at a lot of that behind the scenes work.
Arun Rath: There are tools like ad blockers to regulate the content that comes just barreling at us. Are there other tools or techniques that can be applied in that way towards, what we're getting in terms of our news media content?
Allison Butler: Yeah, I'm a little bit hesitant to use a technology as a way of analyzing another technology, because I think that can chip away at any sense of privacy or autonomy. So I might be a little bit old fashioned here and say, let's use some non-technological skills or tools that we have. Let's do some stuff that's really within our communities or within our classrooms.
One of the key elements of critical media literacy is this engagement of continuous critical inquiry, continuously asking questions. We can do that without other technologies. We can do that without having the most advanced or sophisticated access. We can do that through good old fashioned conversation.
I think one of the things that our current media environment does, and particularly social media, is it inundates us with so much material presented in such a declarative format, and it has everything coming at us so quickly. I would say our job might be to slow down, to take a step away from it, to ask the questions of the technology, to look at the evidence that they might be providing. Maybe if we can take a step away from that, we can have a better understanding of what's coming at us. Our social media in particular encourages us to go super quickly to really just glance at the headlines, just glance at those quick 60 second videos. Maybe we do some counter work to that. We resist that by slowing down, by taking more time.
Arun Rath: I love the idea of, for lack of a better term, an analog solution to a digital problem but how do we then get people to to do that, if not to unplug, at least to kind of pull back or slow down in the way that you're talking about?
Allison Butler: I don't necessarily think that we need to unplug and quite frankly, I don't even have any ad blockers on anything that I use consistently, in part because I want to see what all of that behind the scenes folks think of me, think of who I am or what I'm supposed to be buying. I want to try and have a better understanding of the algorithm that is created with my identity points.
So I think what we do is we try and bring it into our teacher education, and then by extension, we bring it into our classrooms, we bring it into our family conversations, so that we don't actually have to turn off our media. Maybe we actually engage with it a little bit more, but we don't engage with it passively, we engage with it actively.
Along with a bunch of other authors, I co-wrote a book called "The Media and Me." It's a critical media literacy guide specifically for young people. We're writing to young readers, middle school through high school. We've also heard that it's been really helpful for teachers and for those in higher education. There are digital copies of the book available, but in some ways, it is that kind of analog treatment that says, let's start by having a conversation. Let's not let this material wash over us. Simultaneously, we are not in any way, shape or form trying to punish young people for their media use. This is the world they live in. It's the oxygen they breathe. Our argument is more that we deserve to understand more fully, more thoroughly the world in which we live. We would never send our children to school and say they don't need to learn how to read or write, or they don't need basic mathematic skills and yet we seem to be more than willing in this country to send our children to school where they don't actually have to learn anything about the media. Yet, even the most low tech of us can't get through a day without some media engagement. So, we need to start teaching about it and we need to start teaching our teachers how to teach about it.
Arun Rath: So it sounds like you think this should be incorporated into a curriculum well before young people get to voting age.
Allison Butler: 100% absolutely. I think it should be incorporated in curriculum from early childhood education onwards. We can't expect newly minted 18 year olds to suddenly know exactly what they're supposed to be doing just because they've turned 18. And again, as I said before and would repeat this over and over again, the media and technology are the oxygen that we are breathing these days. How about we start learning about it really young. I've worked with children before who have a real sense of right and wrong. They have a real sense of their bodies in the world. Let's start working with that. Let's start seeing what they have to say.
Arun Rath: Allison, thank you so much. It's really been, I have to say, heartening to talk about actual solutions to this really intense problem. Thank you.
Allison Butler: Thank you so much.