The ubiquity of ‘fake news’, unreasonable messages, and damning information exchanges on the online sphere in our country clearly indicate that most Facebook users lack the ability to evaluate the messages they consume and dispatch, writes Kibrom Berhane.
Briefly put, media literacy is the ability to navigate the media. The navigation skills are also associated with the critical thinking ability of users to evaluate the messages they obtain from different communication technologies or media. Media literacy is also about the ability to effectively use communication technologies. According to Sonia Livingstone, a professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at London School of Economics (LSE), media literacy can be defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts”. As clearly stated in this definition, there are four basic concepts – i.e. access, analysis, evaluation, and content creation – which a media literate person or society should be equipped with.
The concept of access, for instance, is beyond a mere ability to get information from certain sources or via different communication gadgets. According to Livingstone, the term accessibility is a broad concept which includes a continual process of updating, upgrading and extending both the hardware and software applications of communication. In this particular feature of media literacy, a considerable number of the youth in Ethiopian might be considered media literate for they relatively use different communication technologies. Moreover, most smartphone users, for instance, update or incline to use different software vital for accessing information and communicating with people. Hence, many users would expand their information sources from time to time.
The second important issue in media literacy is analysis. This refers to the analytic capacity of the audience or information technology users to critically scrutinize media contents. If we take Facebook users in our country as an example, analytical competence would mean the users should have the capability to distinguish between truthful and deceptive media contents. To be considered media literates, they have to have the skills, for instance, to discern which contents are politically motivated or not and which groups are triggering conflicts or not. Nonetheless, we do not observe this kind of ability among the virtual communities in our country. I believe the analytical capacity of most social media, such as Facebook, users is chronically underdeveloped. Probably, it is due to this problem that there are an increasing number of uncritical mass and rubbish messages in the virtual world.
According to Livingstone, the ability to judge or evaluate media contents is the third and the other most important skill in media literacy. It is believed that the accessibility of media contents is valueless without a critical evaluation skill of what we consume and distribute via different communication channels. It refers to the users’ critical ability to evaluate the consequences of the messages dispatched online. Accordingly, if most social media or Facebook users in our country do have effective evaluation skills, it would have been easy to substantially minimize the anarchy that we observe in the virtual world. To the contrary, many users appear to enjoy only the freedom to dispatch messages on social media platforms. They forget about their social responsibilities to protect fellow citizens from negative media messages.
Therefore, the ubiquity of ‘fake news’, unreasonable messages, and damning information exchanges on the online sphere in our country clearly indicate that most Facebook users lack the ability to evaluate the messages they consume and dispatch.
In Livingstone’s definition, the fourth and final attribute of media literacy is the ability to create or produce (symbolic) texts. Particularly on social media, such as Facebook, users do have the freedom to produce media contents. Nevertheless, a mere ability to produce any form of media content cannot make a person media literate. Media literate people, for instance, always try to put facts and opinions distinctively. They try to help their target audiences understand the differences between facts and perceptions. Hence, in my view, a person is said to be media literate when she/he integrates the ability to produce contents and to predict the consequences of the contents on people she/he intends to reach.
Without the knowledge to predict the consequences of the messages they produce, social media users’ ability to write is simply a mechanical aspect. As we might observe, the vast majority of Facebook users in our country often distribute information without even properly read the contents they produced. Many Facebook users hurriedly ‘post’ their messages and read them together with other readers. They usually edit their ‘posts’ after the messages reached the audience. Currently, what matters most for many social media users is to post as quickly as possible rather than presenting the right information for the right purpose.
Furthermore, many people intentionally fuse facts with opinions. They confuse people by presenting false allegations as if they are true. Many Facebook users, particularly the so-called activists, pretend to have access to exclusive sources and try to deceive their followers. In my view, this kind of (social) media usage is a sheer sign of idiocy. Media literacy incorporates responsibilities. Hence, if Facebook users in our country produce contents irresponsibly, that is a good indication of illiteracy.
In sum, in our country, even though we have millions of social media users who can actively engage in online communication exchanges, it is extremely difficult to believe that they are media literate. The irrational and frivolous communication exchanges on social media platforms, such as Facebook, illustrates many users have a weak understanding of the power of the media. As a result, many of them seem to fail to consciously manage the information overflow on social media platforms.
The lack of media literacy, particularly of the online media literacy, among the vast majority of Facebook users in our country would also mean that our society lacks the competitive advantage which is necessary to be part of the fast-changing information age. Lack of online media literacy would indicate citizens’ lack of the ability to select and distribute messages that promote their nation. Hence, in this information age, without media literacy, citizens cannot understand how ‘reality’ is constructed through the media in general and social media platforms, such as Facebook, in particular. This, in turn, can be equated with lack of competence to be part of the globalized world where media play a vital role in ideological and political issues.
Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]