Matthew Johnson is the Director of Education for MediaSmarts, and he chats with Elizabeth about critical digital literacy. From house hippos to authenticating information online, Elizabeth and Matthew discuss functional and critical aspects of media and digital literacy. They talk about the skills required to use digital and media tools, and the “key concept approach” to digital literacy, and digital literacy in the context of democratic systems.
Check out Media Smarts’ overview of digital literacy fundamentals here.
Matthew also discusses the 5 key concepts for Media Literacy which can be found on this page.
This article written by Gianfranco Polizzi addresses the importance of critical digital literacy for democracy.
Elizabeth: [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms, where political communication theory meets on the ground strategy. I'm your host, Elizabeth Dubois. I'm an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and my pronouns are she/her. Today, I'm recording from the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people.
Today we kick off season three, and in season three, we're focusing on media and digital literacy, so I'll be chatting with Matthew Johnson of MediaSmarts to lay the groundwork. You're going to notice that this episode is a little longer than most episodes of the podcast, but for good reason. We go over what media literacy is, what digital literacy is, how to think about it, and really make sure that we've got a great foundation for the rest of this special season. I hope you enjoy.
Matthew: [00:00:47] My name is Matthew Johnson. I am the director of Education for MediaSmarts, which is Canada's centre for digital media literacy. We produce resources for parents, teachers, academics, [and] the general public around digital media literacy, and we also do research primarily with Canadian youth on digital literacy and digital media issues.
Elizabeth: [00:01:13] Wonderful, thank you so much, Matthew. I am really excited to have you here today. We're talking about critical digital literacy, and I kind of need to step back to talk about digital literacy and what some people have talked about as functional [digital literacy]. So digital literacy generally is a literacy related to digital tools and technology and content, right? And so it's an understanding and ability to comprehend, to make use of, to critique or evaluate in different ways. And then, in academic research, there's been this sort of divide between functional versus critical [digital literacy].
Functional digital literacy is thought of as a mastery of operational things and operational proficiency of tools, so [for example]: Do you know how to do a search with a search engine? Can you construct good search terms? Or, do you actually know how to make use of Facebook and other kinds of digital tools? Or maybe specific classroom tools? [At] uOttawa, we use BrightSpace. There's a whole bunch of information you need to have to understand how to actually make use of BrightSpace.
On the flip side, we have this idea of critical digital literacy, which focuses more on the evaluation and critiquing aspects where the question is: Can you apply analysis and judgment to digital content, to its tools, to the way you use it? And then even beyond that, can you critique and understand the historical, cultural, [and] social context in which these tools have been developed, and their effects on our social relationships and our politics and those kinds of things?
So I want to start off with asking you, you know, does this fit with your understanding of digital literacy and critical digital literacy?
Matthew: [00:02:59] Yeah, that's definitely one of the ways of defining digital literacy. One of things that we've really been doing over the past 10 years at MediaSmarts has been working to essentially reconcile media literacy and digital literacy because in some ways they come from very different places—and even within those two disciplines, there are quite independent strands. But they, more and more for the last few years, we've been realizing that they have to be a single discipline because the distinction between media and digital media is increasingly arbitrary, particularly for young people. I mean, even things that we think of as traditional media experiences like watching TV or even reading magazines are increasingly done in digital environments—in networked environments with everything that comes along with that. And within both of those, as you say, there has always been a bit of a distinction between the practical skills and the critical skills. That's one [distinction] that was perhaps less apparent with traditional media literacy, which of course has the longer history, because, until fairly recently, the practical skills for using media were limited and fairly simple, or else they were out of reach. So there was the ability to access media (and of course, if you're a child of the 80s, as I am, you may have grown up helping people program their VCRs), so it wasn't always easy to access media, but it was generally fairly simple.
Elizabeth: [00:04:47] [Chuckles]
Matthew: [00:04:48] And then, of course, until fairly recently, creating media was actually very difficult from a technical perspective. Not many people had access to the equipment to do it, and so most people did not wind up learning those practical skills of making media simply because they didn't have the opportunity to do it. But we did still see—and to a certain extent, still see—in what you might call "traditional media literacy education", that divide between an emphasis on the practical skills (which is mostly making) and then the critical skills of understand texts and works, of placing them in context and understanding the significance of them.
And so we see the same thing in digital literacy—or as it's called "media and information literacy" in some places (that's the term that UNESCO uses)—where there is, on the one hand, very much the practical [skills] because these are new skills. And it's important to point out that these are not skills that even young people pick up automatically. Young people certainly do pick up a certain degree of fluency from early on, but when you look closely at it, often you will find that as soon as you scratch the surface, young people are not necessarily any more technically adept than adults. And certainly there's a lot of research showing that in many, many meaningful ways, young people are no more technically adept than their teachers are. So there are those technical skills, but that does underline how the technical skills are not separate from the critical skills; how you need that base of those technical skills. You need to be able, for instance, to understand how a search engine works and you need to be able to create an effective search to be able to critically engage with your search results. And when you're doing searches, we see so many cases where people have been drawn into misinformation and disinformation through what are called "data voids", where a particular search term will be given to you—it'll be sort of fed to you—by people who are spreading disinformation. And then when you search that particular term, you'll almost exclusively find what they wanted you to find rather than [if you searched] a general term that would actually give you a clearer sense of the actual consensus on the issue [and] that [would show] you that this is a fringe position.
Elizabeth: [00:07:19] And sorry, when you say, "giving you those terms," do you mean the specific kind of buzzwords that are being used all of the time by that community of people? And so people are like, "Oh, well, I should figure out what that means," and then they search that specific term?
Matthew: [00:07:33] That's one way that it happens. I mean, sometimes you will see it literally where people will say, "Do the research for yourself, search 'such and such' a term." And it'll be some term that will uncover [if its] a reference to some conspiracy theory, [or it could be a reference] a hate group, [or] it'll be a reference to some particular medication.
So let's say, if you had done this a couple of weeks ago, if you had looked up Ivermectin on YouTube, then at that time, it would have brought up almost exclusively medical disinformation about Ivermectin and COVID. Because, the way that data void works, there's usually not a whole lot of videos saying, "Yes, Ivermectin is a useful dewormer for horses, but people shouldn't take it." Or, "[People] should only take the human kind, and only if you have a parasitic infection and your doctor has identified that you have a parasitic infection." But there's not videos about that, for the same reason that, for a long time, there weren't any videos showing that the world was round. Because we don't know ahead of time when these kinds of things are going to come up. And so all of the search engines, all of the video platforms, all of the social networks, they're always playing catch-up even when they're doing their best (and that's a whole other issue). They're always playing catch up.
[00:08:54] So to come back around to it, that's why our one of our definitions of digital media literacy, which we define as a single thing, is that it is the ability to, first of all, access media of all kinds—and that includes being able to, so access as a precondition. So you need to be able to access the internet, and of course, many people in Canada can't. You need to have the equipment, you need to have good quality Broadband, [and] you need to have the language skills (because it is largely an English language internet). But also there are skills involved in access—things like using a search engine, things like understanding how recommendation algorithms work—that help you see that what you're being recommended isn't necessarily the most reliable thing or the most relevant thing. It's often the thing that is going to make you stay on the platform longer or that is going to connect you to the right advertisers. Because of course, all of these platforms have many priorities other than giving you accurate or even relevant information. So those are access skills, and that's the foundation on which the other skills rest. You really can't do anything else without those access skills, which are primarily practical skills, but there are critical skills involved in there as well.
[00:10:12] And then the other skills that are involved. The rest of the definition is the ability to use digital and media tools (and again, here, we see that there's a pretty clear distinction between the practical and the more critical ones because there are better and worse ways of using them) [and] the ability to understand media of all kinds [and] to critically engage with it. To understand [media] as a text where we look at it and we see how it works (so identifying, for instance, how camera angles or soundtracks are used in movies or TV or comics to make us feel a certain way). But we can do the same thing with digital media; we can interrogate a digital text in the same way. We can identify how a social network operates to keep us using it, to make sure we keep coming back to it day after day.
[00:11:05] And then the final skill (after access, use, and understand) is to engage: the ability to be an active user and not just a passive consumer. So that can mean creating media content, although creating is also part of using as well, but it also means being an active digital citizen. It means taking an active part in our online communities. It means understanding our rights and responsibilities when we're online. It means understanding that we have a role to play in shaping the values of our online communities. And it also means understanding how we can use online tools to organize offline and to be active citizens in the offline world as well.
Elizabeth: [00:11:49] That's really helpful. That kind of breakdown of those different layers is really, really helpful and we should say [that] I'll include in the show notes links to MediaSmarts’s website, where there's more details on a bunch of these things that you're bringing up.
[00:12:04] One of the things that what you were saying made me think of was my own media literacy teaching. When I was in school, I had a high school teacher who did a whole unit on media literacy. But, our definition of media was essentially political news content—like, that's that's what media was. And in the examples you've offered, you've already hinted at that's not what we mean when we say media literacy, right? We mean all kinds of different content that shows up through all kinds of different media (as in the channels or the tools of communication). And so, that then makes me think about: What about all of the kinds of media [and] types of content that are going to be innovated [but] that we don't even know about yet? How do we develop critical digital literacy skills or functional digital literacy skills to deal with those types of media that we don't even know what they look like yet?
Matthew: [00:13:04] Well, it's one of the reasons why, in Canada, media literacy education generally is based on what we call a "key concept approach". And that was actually developed in the UK, but it was adopted really enthusiastically in Ontario and then later in the rest of Canada as media literacy was integrated into the curriculum. And it is the idea that rather than studying necessarily specific media types (and you have to pay some attention to the specific media type) what you're really doing is trying to position students to ask the right questions. And that allows a certain degree of an evergreen approach because the questions—the concepts—don't change too often.
[00:13:54] And in fact, in the time since MediaSmarts was founded—we were actually founded 25 years ago; we were originally the Media Awareness Network 25 years ago and we rebranded about a decade ago—actually really for us, there's only been one change in those key concepts as we go through [and update our content]. Routinely we go through and we update all of our resources and we're just in the middle of a major update of the overview section of digital media literacy.
[00:14:22] So the original five key concepts were, first of all, the idea that media are constructions. So thinking of media products, media works, as something that was made by people, it didn't just come to be. And one of the implications of that is that it's an imperfect reflection of reality. It's not a mirror. Now, some aren't even really trying to be mirror— like fiction, obviously, is not necessarily trying to be a mirror. But even when you are trying to be a mirror, even with news or documentary, you cannot be. Some can do it better than others, but inevitably you're making choices about what to include and what to leave out. And you are inflicting things, again, simple things like camera angle or the music that's playing [or] editing. All of these things have an impact on how we interpret the media messages in front of us. And in fact, documentary shoots way more footage relative to what's used than feature [films] do. So in some ways, documentaries are actually...you can make an argument that they're actually more edited, they're more synthesized.
[00:15:31] But the thing is that our brains, of course, even when we're watching fiction, we instinctively view it as real. We take messages from it because we feel like these are real people. I mean, when you think about cartoons—when you think about the Muppets—how really, we instinctively think that Kermit and Miss Piggy are real people and you have an emotional investment in their relationship, even though these are just these pieces of felt on puppeteers hands. But our ability—our empathy—is so powerful that when we see anything that looks like a human being, or even a living thing, on a screen or represented in any way, instinctively, emotionally, we feel that it is real. And so the basis of media literacy is just that second thought, that reminder, "Oh yeah, somebody made this. It's a picture, it's not a mirror. And those people made choices and those choices influence how I interpret it." And so the rest of the original concepts come out of that.
[00:16:27] So one of those is the idea that all media have social and political implications, and that goes back to the example of your course. That is easy, of course, to focus on the ones with clear social and political implications; [for example] political news, novels like '1984' or 'Brave New World' or 'Lord of the Flies'. I used to be an English teacher, I know we love to teach these because they're easy to teach because there's a clear message! And the problem is that when we focus on these, it gives the idea that if there isn't a clear message coming from the media creator, there is no political or social impact. But in fact, in many cases, the political or social impact is stronger when there isn't a clearer meaning because our critical faculties aren't engaged. So when I go see a Marvel movie, I'm not thinking critically. I'm not thinking, "Oh, these people were sending me a message." But I'm getting a message. And if every Marvel movie has a white male lead, then that's sending a message to me about who is important and who can be a hero. And it's also sending me a message about what kinds of movies will make money, because these messages are taken by people in the industry as well. And then, if Marvel starts—as it has done, to its great credit—when it starts having more diversity in its leads, when it starts taking a risk, when it starts challenging the conventional wisdom of the industry, that sends a message as well. And the evidence there is really clear that that kind of representation—whether it's gender, whether it's about sexual identity or orientation, whether it's about racialized people—all of these things have a huge impact on how we see the world.
[00:18:08] The third key concept is the idea that media have commercial considerations; that most media were created to make money, and so that's going to influence those choices. And even if they weren't [created to make money], they cost money to make and so that's going to be an influence as well.
We also have the idea that each medium is a unique aesthetic form. So that's really where we get into the idea of engaging with the specific medium, that we tell stories differently [on different media]. We communicate messages differently in TV, in movies, in comic books and video games, [and] on social networks—even different social networks. You know, Snapchat and Instagram are two very different ways of communicating, even though they seem very similar on the surface.
[00:18:47] And finally, there's the idea that audiences negotiate meaning. And that's really important because one of the mistakes we can fall into in media literacy education is the idea that media are just sending these messages to a passive viewer, a passive recipient. That's not necessarily true. We bring our own experience. Most of the time we are going to respond the way other people respond. But often there is going to be something about our identity, about our experience, about the circumstances where we don't necessarily read it the same way. So, the meaning of a media text is not fixed. It's always going to be a collaboration between the producer and the audience.
[00:19:29] So those [concepts] have been around for 30 years now—more than 30 years—and every one of those applies just as much to digital media as it does to traditional media. But in the last 15 years or so, there has been one huge change in the whole media ecosystem, and that's led us to develop five additional key concepts.
Elizabeth: [00:19:52] Okay.
Matthew: [00:19:52] And to a large extent, media education is communicating these key concepts—these 10 key concepts—in ways that are appropriate to kids at different ages.
I'm going to summarize these ones a lot more quickly. But the first one, the first one that really makes the difference, is the idea that digital (they're all about digital media) is networked. So in the old media ecosystem, it cost a lot to make media [and] it cost a lot to distribute it. And so there were a small number of gatekeepers[and] a small number of distributors. And we [regular people] were typically at the end of a distribution chain—we couldn't really respond back. You know, you could write a letter to the editor, or sometimes, if you were a Nielsen family, you could help decide whether a show stayed on the air or not. But most of the time it was a one way journey from the producer to you. And also you couldn't interact much with other consumers. Maybe you talk about a TV show the next day at work or at school, but basically you were isolated. Today, though, we're not at the end of a chain. Today we're all in the middle of an infinite network. Signals are always going two ways. Even if you're doing something that feels like a traditional media experience (like watching Netflix), you're sending signals back. Netflix is watching you. They want to know: What shows do you binge? What shows do you watch? What shows do you give up on? Which thumbnails do you respond to? All of those things. You're sending that information back. And you can interact with other people. And so we've seen the role of gatekeepers has diminished, and power now moves to those that control the networks or that have influence on that. But power is also a lot more fluid. Someone can be very influential one day and much less influential the next. That can change very quickly. And so we get an additional series of key concepts from that.
[00:21:38] Very briefly: the first is that digital media are shareable and persistent. It is the nature now of media to spread outward and because when we're sharing things digitally, what we're doing is creating copies—not really sending things, we're [actually] telling other computers to make a copy—there are constantly copies being made. So it's very hard to actually delete anything.
[As a] consequence of that, digital media have unintended audiences. What we share may be seen by people we don't imagine, and it's also much easier to see things that weren't intended for us. And we've seen that with rabbit holes, for instance: algorithmic recommendation systems on YouTube, where it's very easy—they've improved it a lot, but it can be very easy—to move from mainstream information to conspiracy theories or misinformation.
[00:22:26] Then there is the idea that digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we use. So because we use digital media, we don't just consume it, it's not just our interpretation of it that's shaped by how it's made, but actually how we use It. So things like algorithms, things like the basic design of these platforms, they control what we can do and they influence how we use them.
And finally, because digital media is two way, because it is interactive, we have the key concept that interactions through digital media can have a real impact. That can be a negative thing because, of course, we have things like cyberbullying and privacy invasions that didn't really exist with traditional media. But it's also a positive thing as well because, again, that ability to interact: we can respond to media makers, we can push back when we see misinformation [and] we can counter it. And we can publish things as well; we can make up for those data voids by consciously sharing good information.
Elizabeth: [00:23:25] That's really helpful and a really great run through of these key concepts. I think it's so useful to have them listed out like that. And I'll give a shout out to two previous episodes of the podcast that we had. We had one on the hybrid media system with Jane Lytvynenko, who's a journalist for BuzzFeed (or was at that time). And then an episode on gatekeeping and network gatekeeping with Fatma Syed, another journalist. And I think both of those episodes dig into what you were talking there about the networked nature [of media] and all of the things that flow from the fact that we have this networked media ecosystem. And there's some inevitable changes to how we interact with media because the internet has shifted things.
Matthew: [00:24:10] Mm hmm.
Elizabeth: [00:24:11] I want to switch gears just a little bit right now and talk about the idea of digital literacy in the context of democratic systems. So there's not a ton of research out there on it—definitely not a ton specific to Canadians—where we've got like, "Oh yeah, if you have this measurable increase in critical digital literacy, [then] you have this measurable increase in civic engagement." That said, generally, the research shows that the more ability you have to analyze and evaluate traditional news media, the higher your civic engagement is online. [And that] the more that you understand how news is produced and how bias is or is not embedded in content, the higher your civic engagement is going to be. [And also that] the more you understand media structures, the higher your activism is. So there's all of these studies that are suggesting generally that the more you understand and can critique these systems, the better off you are in terms of participating in your democratic system.
Now, we don't actually know if this is a causal effect—it's not like, "Okay, we teach the kids to do it [and] they're necessarily going to be more engaged." It's quite possible that the ones who critique the system are doing that because they are engaged and they care about it. But the correlation is still interesting. And so, I wonder, in your experience is that part of why we think critical digital literacy is relevant and important? Is it about engaging in democratic systems or is it separate from that?
Matthew: [00:25:52] No, I think that's absolutely a part of it. And that, again, is why we define "engage" as one of those key skills, because engagement is engagement with media, but it's also engagement through media. And whether that means through making careful choices about what politically oriented media you consume, but also it's [about] using digital media (and in some cases, using traditional media if you have access to it) for civic engagement. And that can come in a lot of different ways. And so it's one of the reasons why our model, for instance, includes both community engagement (which is being engaged in both your online and offline communities) but also consumer awareness (where we understand that we have rights as consumers) as well.
The online world is an unusual kind of space because it feels like a public space, but the vast majority of the spaces are private—they are kind of [like] gated communities or shopping. So, again, we have to be conscious of the commercial considerations of these platforms that may lead them to privilege certain kinds of content or to tolerate certain kinds of content. But also understanding our own power as consumers comes from understanding the business models. And that's why, for instance, when it comes to some of these platforms where people have had the most success in influencing their policies has actually been going through the advertisers. If a platform has a billion users you would have to get a whole lot of users to be complaining to make a difference in their bottom line. [The platforms] may have a billion users, but they have a significantly smaller number of advertisers (and also the advertisers primarily [are secured by] go[ing] though a smaller number of brokers), and so there are certain weak points or leverage points in the system.
[00:27:51] So, yeah, I would say that the real trick, though is—and I think this is a trick for everyone who's teaching media literacy—is teaching civic engagement without falling into pushing a particular kind of politics. Because we all have our political beliefs, we all have our opinions, and we don't want to hide them. But at the same time, media literacy and critical thinking can't just be about saying, "Don't think that, think this [instead]." [Or,] "Don't believe that, believe this [other thing]."
We do have a duty, I think, to provide the students and the general public with reliable sources. With sources [to which] we can say, "Yeah, this is basically trustworthy." But we also have to help them understand why—what makes this a trustworthy source? So we can see if maybe in a certain area [a source] may be less trustworthy. So [that, for example] we can look at a news outlet and say, "Well, they're really good about their news, but they don't put a lot of work into their opinion pages." Or maybe, "They put work into it, but they don't make sure they don't fact check their opinion pages. They don't provide the same level of scrutiny in fact- checking there."
The reliability of sources can change as well. So, we can't just say, "This source is reliable, trust it." [Instead,] we have to be able to say, "These are the markers, these are the things that you can [use to] tell [if a source is reliable]." So if something starts to change, then you can recognize, "Oh, I used to trust the source—I used to rely on it—but maybe now it's not as trustworthy."
[00:29:29] And so it's in the same way that media literacy can't just be about saying, "Doubt everything." And that, I think, is one of the biggest problems that we have with media literacy education. It sounds good—"Doubt everything"—but the problem is that doubting everything doesn't lead to skepticism. It leads to cynicism. And that really opens the door to conspiracy thinking, because that's often the argument that is made by conspiracy thinkers. They say, "Doubt everything," and at the same [time], on the other hand, they say, "Trust the plan. Doubt everything except me."
Elizabeth: [00:30:03] Yeah, and it's interesting... it brings up one of the main critiques or pushbacks against prioritizing digital literacy and media literacy ([prioritizing meaning that] everyone needs [to be taught] this) because there's a difficult boundary between assessing and critiquing media representations of things versus "What is mis- and disinformation?" Right? And being able to disentangle those things within a democratic system is essential because if you go too far on the "Doubt everything! Critical digital literacy! All of the system is designed to make you feel or think one way or another," you [end up] de-legitimiz[ing] news—which is [problematic because] the press is essential in democratic systems. Right? If we agree with the democratic theory [then] we need a free press, and if you can't trust them and you don't believe that they say anything that is true or reliable or valid, [then] you really don't have much of a democratic system. And you have a lot of conspiracy theories.
Matthew: [00:31:07] Yeah. And then you fall into just believing whatever is going to confirm what you already believe. And that, of course, it's a very different business model for news—it can be profitable—but I think most of us would agree [that] it's not good for society or democracy when you're just selling only the news that confirms what your readers or your viewers already believe. And that's one of the reasons why our resources about authenticating information online—particularly our Break the Fake series, and that was where we brought back the house hippo, for those people who remember the [original] house hippo.
Elizabeth: [00:31:44] I love the house hippo.
Matthew: [00:31:45] But in those resources, our emphasis is not about debunking. It's about identifying, "Well, how can I find out if this is true?" So obviously, sometimes we're going to find out something isn't true in that process, but we do want to place the emphasis always on, "What are the markers?" What are the things that lead us to conclude, "Yeah, this is probably true," or, "This is true. This is likely enough that I'm going to believe it." So in our examples, for instance, in the Break the Fake workshop, we make sure to always have at least half of the examples be something that seems crazy but turns out to be true. [For example, a] story on Twitter about a guy in a Spiderman suit shooting webs on Spadina Street in Toronto. You know, that kind of thing that it seems crazy but is actually true. And it's relatively easy to verify it because all you have to do is you go and look at the Twitter account, and you see this is the actual Toronto Police Twitter account, and, you know, you're not necessarily going to believe the police about absolutely everything, but they're probably not going to lie about a guy in a Spiderman suit.
And that, again, is where skepticism comes in; that we have to measure our skepticism. There are going to be a lot of times when there might be a particular reason why we think something might be omitted [or] something might be inflected in a certain way. There are a lot of sources that are generally reliable. And so we also have to make it seem easy—that's the other thing about verification is that it has to be something that is quick and easy because it is something we do all the time. If you're spending any time on social media, as so many of us are, you're constantly encountering information and you want to know if it's true or not. And we want to share it as well. Information as currency. Everyone likes to see the funny story. Everyone likes to be the one who shares the funny story or the shocking story, or the story that makes you angry.
[00:33:36] And so we really did try to boil it down to four really quick and simple steps for verifying. Teaching people to use fact checking tools—we actually created a custom search engine—is a great little practical skill (going back to that distinction). You can make your own search engines on Google that search limited numbers of sites. And so we created a custom search engine that searches about a dozen fact checkers at the same time. Which is great because a lot of the big fact checkers don't necessarily cover Canadian things, so it's good to be able to search multiple ones.
Then there's the idea that you need to find the source [and] figure out where something originally came from—because again, there's that networked element; often we don't get things from the original source, and there's no point in verifying the source (which is the next step) until you've gotten to the original source. So if I see something on a source that I think is unreliable, [for example,] if I see a video that's being spread by R[e]T[weet] or something like that, well, it doesn't necessarily matter if [the people retweeting it] weren't the ones that originated [the video]. If they're just republishing something that came from the Associated Press, well, then what matters is whether or not I trust the Associated Press. And that's a relatively easy thing to find out.
[00:34:47] And of course, the other thing, drawing on the networked nature of digital communication (the fact that we now have access to so many different sources) is to check other sources. To do, for instance, a news search on Google to see [if] other news outlets [are] covering this. And the great thing about the news search compared to the general search is that it is much more curated. Not everything on the news search is one hundred percent reliable, but they're all actual news outlets that really exist. But also, we can consult other sources, we can check other sources. We can, for instance, just check Wikipedia, which has gotten a bad rap but I think most of us know that it has gotten to the point where it is actually a really good way of getting the consensus on an issue on a particular day. And it's been really interesting watching some of Wikipedia pages evolve.
And one of the great things about Wikipedia, once you know how to use it, is that unlike almost everything else, it is one hundred percent transparent. You can see every edit that was ever made. You can see the discussions between the editors. You can literally see how the sausage is made. So if you think something's been left out of a Wikipedia article, it's not like a newspaper where you're not privy to those decisions that were made about what was put in and what was left out. You can actually go to the talk page and you can see the arguments between the editors where one person says, "I think this should be put in," and someone else says, "No, we're taking it out. And here's why."
Elizabeth: [00:36:11] Yeah, this is really interesting to see. You know, these steps that you've elaborated are really helpful; [they're] nice concrete options. But that idea of, "You could use the talk page to dig in and understand this process," is a nice window into how one particular kind of content ends up getting created. And you can start to see some of the patterns that we know from research exist in news production (for example) where journalists have gone and done ethnographic studies embedded in newsrooms. And then we could even think of things like, "What memes become popular?" And, "On what platforms [do] they become popular?" Because political memes are another way of communicating political information very quickly, very succinctly, [while still] leaving a lot of room for your past experience and your contextual understanding to play a role [in understanding the meme]. But we see very similar [concepts] of: What gets left out, what doesn't? What gets promoted and reshared, what doesn't? Those kinds of things all play in and what you're talking about of different sources—[or] what I've talked about as "lateral reading"—really does help you take all of those kinds of information together and form some sort of view.
[00:37:25] We're starting to get close to time now, so unfortunately, we don't have the opportunity to dig in more. One quick thing I wanted to mention before we wrap up is [that] we've talked a lot about the need for individuals to develop these skills and these abilities to critically assess and evaluate so that they can apply it in whatever context, whatever situation. There is some research within critical digital literacy studies (on the academic side) that's starting to dig into how people's own identities influence what they then perceive as reliable, trustworthy, [and] valid, [and] how they interact with the larger power structures. Right? If you are from a marginalized group, you might feel very differently about the information that's being fed to you, and you might use the exact same skills you've learned in a classroom in a slightly different way, or to come to different conclusions from somebody who is not from the same marginalized group as you. And I bring that up because I think it's really interesting and important to think about our context as individuals and our experiences and how they play into our ability to understand our media environment. But like I said, unfortunately, we don't have time to dive in.
Matthew: [00:38:39] Yeah. And that goes back to that idea that audiences negotiate meaning; that there isn't a single meaning that we are [all taking out of a piece of media content], and we should be encouraged to be active participants. And that, again, the networked nature of modern media can be a real strength because we have seen it used to shed light on stories that mainstream media either didn't cover at all or under-covered—not through any conscious bias and not through any agenda, but in many cases, just because a lot of members of diverse groups were underrepresented in the media industry.
Elizabeth: [00:39:16] Yeah.
Matthew: [00:39:17] Or, based on just ideas of what is and isn't newsworthy—which is the most fundamental [media] bias, more than any political bias (which really, [in] most news outlets, is not significant). That those basic questions of what is and isn't newsworthy are the biggest influence on what makes the news.
Elizabeth: [00:39:34] Absolutely. And then we can see it, too, in elections: [for example,] what politicians decide is and isn't worthy of being posted about on the campaign trail or what different social groups decide to talk about or not.
Matthew: [00:39:47] And we see, yeah, back and forth influence there, too. We see, increasingly, politicians are more and more responsive to audiences as they get feedback really quickly about which messages play and which ones don't. And that can be a dangerous power, but it's an important power as well.
Elizabeth: [00:40:06] Yeah, that's true. And again, that engagement and that relationship between audience and producer is blurred. And actually, now there's a lot of interaction.
Matthew: [00:40:16] Absolutely.
Elizabeth: [00:40:17] All right. We are going to wrap up with my go to final question for every podcast, which is a little short answer pop quiz for you. So I would like you, in one sentence, to define for me what digital literacy is.
Matthew: [00:40:35] Well, that's lucky because we actually have a one sentence definition.
Elizabeth: [00:40:38] Perfect.
Matthew: [00:40:40] We define digital and media literacy as the ability to critically and effectively—and responsibly—access, use, understand, and engage with media of all kinds.
Elizabeth: [00:40:53] That's perfect. That hits on all of the key points—I really appreciate that.
Matthew: [00:40:58] My pleasure.
Elizabeth: [00:40:59] Thank you so much.
Matthew: [00:41:01] Thank you!
Elizabeth: [00:41:05] All right, that was our episode on critical digital literacy. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you'd like to learn more about critical digital literacy, MediaSmarts, or any of the other things we talked about on today's episode, go ahead and check the show notes or head over to polcommtech.ca.
[00:41:20] This special season on media and digital literacy is funded in part through a Connections Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Digital Citizen Initiative.