Fake news and news literacy and community engagement sometimes feel like new topics — and especially urgent ones, given nightmare-come-to-life incidents like Pizzagate.
But many people, including plenty in academia, have been plugging away at this line of work since well before Facebook had a fake news PR situation on its hands, before Pizzagate, before the 2016 U.S. election, before Facebook passed a billion active users.
Article by Shan Wang. Originally posted on NiemanLab.
Emerson College professor Paul Mihailidis, whose research covers topics like how young people consume information online and how people can use different forms of media to improve their communities, runs a new graduate program where students embed with partner organizations to develop concrete media projects that address specific problems that arise in local communities.
“In doing civic media work, the first misconception is the thinking that a tool or a curriculum will necessarily solve anything. Students will jump to solutions before they understand problems,” Mihailidis told me, when I asked about common misconceptions among his students. “Fake news is a classic example here. We need to understand the problem, the community, why that problem exists within a specific community. That takes more time and energy than designing a response does.”
What we talk about when we talk about “media literacy” is often that teaching people to interrogate the credibility of media will help them sort out Pizzagate chaff from real news. But, as Mihailidis and his co-author Samantha Viotty wrote in a recent paper, there is a possible flipside: “[I]f individuals are taught to question, critique and inquire about the credibility of media, it seems as if this technique can justify those who felt compelled to investigate the #pizzagate story in the first place.”
I talked to Mihailidis about the new graduate program in civic media, his research on the ways information spreads digitally, the problem of labels like “fake news,” and the tendency toward “solutionism.” Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
SHAN WANG: Many people are newly concerned about news literacy and media literacy and questions of community engagement. But for you and your colleagues, something like this new graduate program wasn’t driven by any post-2016 election rethink. What sorts of factors made you think a whole new graduate program around civic media was needed?
PAUL MILHAILIDIS: Our Engagement Lab is a group of scholars interested in doing applied research and creating knowledge out of intervention, still staying true to academic method and theoretical grounding but being able to look at research with communities and in partnership with communities. We had a lot of students and graduate students interested in this type of work. We wanted to focus on something not many other groups or programs look at — designing for civic impact.
In our program in the fall, the students do problem framing. They look at concepts and ideas that inform civic media practice. They take a course in participatory methods, focused on how you do research with communities. We built a community IRB [institutional review board], focused on the notion of research as building community trust. Students take a design course. Through that process, they identify a problem area, a community stakeholder — they’re out talking to partner organizations.
After the first semester, the curriculum turns into design studios and elective areas, where students are learning specific skills or content areas — they might take courses in data visualization, or coding, or multimedia storytelling, whatever they think might inform their project. In the spring, they build prototypes, and in the summer, they work to test the impact of their prototypes.
We’ve been seeing a large growth in institutions building capacity around civic engagement. City governments are all starting innovation offices; more news organizations have community-focused roles. We noticed this in the nonprofit sector as well. We envision that the people doing the social media work over the past few years are necessarily going to become civic media practitioners, once the idea of using social media just as a communication device has worn off.
WANG: What projects will be coming out of the program this year? Are there interesting ideas around dealing with news distribution or consumption?
MIHAILIDIS: One of our students is working on a DIY data art project. She is working with branches of the Boston Public Library to build an open data art facilitation process that the library can use in working with public data for creative expression. She identified a problem — of libraries needing to be more current and timely and serve as spaces for community expression. She did a lot of work exploring how libraries work, and used data literacy as an angle in.
One student is working on a game-based project around fake news. The form of the game is still in its early stages, but it’s about making critical choices as you navigate online spaces. We’ve tried to push her away from just defining the problem as “fake news,” and more as, critical help in navigation of online information. One student is working with middle schoolers and storytelling, which he’s thinking about as a news and media education initiative.
In civic media, we look at a lot of what we do as rubbing up against the news and journalism area. We try to make those connections as intentional as we can.
WANG: Are there common misconceptions about the media, and about media literacy, that your students have? Or things they do —
MIHAILIDIS: Yes. Yes — there are a few big ones, which is why I’m so eager to answer this!
In civic media work, the first misconception is thinking that a tool or a curriculum will necessarily solve anything. Students will jump to solutions before they understand problems. In a day of fast-paced information, given the speed at which technologies emerge and are distributed, students come into this program, have a million ideas for what they can do to help, before thinking about where problems originate, what the organization they partner with on their project does within the community.
Fake news is a classic example here. We need to understand the problem, the community, why that problem exists within a specific community. That takes more time and energy than designing a response does. The more we can focus on that, the better our responses are.
Another thing we’ve seen: Work around digital media literacy that takes an intervention approach is messy. It takes a lot of iteration and refinement. The projects my colleagues and I do take years to get right, not months. With our grad students and the constraints of a 12-month cycle, they are interested in creating that shiny new thing, and the frustration is palpable, since there’s an urgency to their work.
WANG: To bring this back to issues around fake news and news literacy — do you think we haven’t agreed on what problem exactly we’re all trying to solve, before implementing technological solutions? With Facebook’s fact-checking initiative, with all of these various fixes out there.
MIHAILIDIS: We just published a paper that deals with spectacle and fake news, where I talk a little bit about that. We’ve seen again and again that just throwing tools at things doesn’t solve problems. How many tools and guides and kits to fake news have there been now that don’t get into where the origination of the problem really lies? There’s this “solutionism” happening that doesn’t identify the core problems.
So this paper talks about the spread of spectacle-based information. We use a few case studies and talk about the role of mainstream news in legitimizing the spectacle — for example, Pizzagate. Citizens can introduce and spread and perpetuate questionable information, and do so not because they aren’t media-literate, but because they have their own value system, and they’re trying to advocate for that: “Perhaps the U.S. electorate is not ‘ill-informed’ so much as they would rather find information that fits their worldview. If finding truth is not as large a priority as finding personally relevant information, then what good is knowing how to critique a message in the first place?”
We suggest that mainstream media sources, in doing their jobs as traditional information outlets, end up legitimating spectacle. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just digital culture, pushing up against traditional forms of storytelling and reporting.
We have another paper forthcoming on something we call the “civic actor gap.” We did a whole bunch of deep interviews with about 60 young people around the world, trying to investigate their perception of and engagement in civic, news-based processes. By young people, I mean 18 to 24-year-olds.
Young people are really good at sharing and promoting ideas they like and things that reinforce their value systems. But in terms of interrogation or stopping to do analysis, oftentimes, because of the peer-based nature of their networks, and because of the speed of the technologies they use, they end up stopping at the level of consumption, and using weaker forms of expression — liking, retweeting, resharing. Engaging critical dialogue, or providing their own sense of reflection on this, often doesn’t happen. That leads to perpetuating some of these false narratives we see emerging.
WANG: Of the million news digital literacy initiatives going on, then, are there any that you see as at least addressing the right problems?
MIHAILIDIS: That’s a hard thing to answer. What is good is that a lot of people are turning their attention and resources to this. Berkman-Klein has a new digital citizenship playbook that’s helping to teach young people privacy, engagement, and expression. That’s a rich set of resources. On the news front, there are a lot of new initiatives around teaching students how to create and express, but it’s hard for me at this stage to say whether they’re really addressing some of the phenomena they were created to address.
The News Literacy Project has been doing strong work in providing an outlet and resources for people to help them think about critical news consumption. But we’re only just starting to put these questions on the table.
WANG: Something I’ve wrestled with now that we’ve started to cover this more frequently, is the right words to describe these “phenomena.” When I do use tired terms just for convenience — fake news, news literacy — I don’t quite know how much more these terms now encompass. How do you define these things in your work and for your students?
MIHAILIDIS: “News literacy” simply takes from this media literacy tradition, which is the big umbrella for helping teach people how to critique and create media of all forms. News literacy is supposed to focus on helping teach people how to critically consume, analyze, and perhaps reproduce or reappropriate news narratives.
There’s some benefit to dividing these terms. But at the same time, should we still think of news as a separate space, as a specific type of information? I would say there are far fewer things that are news-like about, for example, cable television channels, than there are about websites. These terms end up creating dichotomies, and people do interesting projects under them. But they also create issues. We see this with the “fake news” term too — by calling something “fake news,” for instance, are we legitimating the thing itself? We are saying there is something newsworthy about it.
In the latest paper I’ve been working on, I’ve been using the term “media literacies,” plural, in an attempt to not get caught in this trap of using one type of literacy over another type of literacy.
At our program we use “civic media,” because we have this idea of it as the technologies, practices and designs that facilitate the process of being in the world with others, toward a common good. It’s important that we’re not trying to silo out news, politics, data; that we allow them to all live in this ecosystem of how we design, whether that’s curricula or technologies. That’s a broad term, but it allows us to fit things into it. When people are creating news aggregators, public data initiatives — is a public data initiative a news literacy initiative, or a data literacy initiative? It’s both, neither, and all. I’m sorry I don’t have a pithy two-sentence answer for you here!