Media Literacy and the Algorithm “Behind the Curtain”
In the classic book and movie, The Wizard of Oz, Toto rips back the curtain for the big reveal: The so-called GREAT and POWERFUL OZ is just a stout, balding white male. It’s all been a ruse! The entity we believed was in control is something else entirely!
In our media literacy class discussion this week, especially concerning the evolving definitions of media and information gatekeeping, I reached a similar conclusion. What if, beneath our contemporary perception of control, there exist more significant (potentially more sinister) influences shaping our media literacy and consumption?
Just Follow the Yellow Brick Road
To unmask and understand what it means to be media literate in today’s rapidly evolving world, I had to first centre myself on a solid definition of media. And to do that, I had to travel back through its evolution.
Canva view / Information gathered from Evolution of Media
Based on class discussions, readings, and my own history deep-dive, I now understand media to mean the evolving channels and tools used to create, distribute, and consume information, content, and messages.
So what, then, does it mean to be media literate? In The State of Media Literacy, Potter notes that defining media literacy is difficult for three reasons (or questions): Which media do we mean, how do we define literacy, and what should the purpose of media literacy be?
The Four Key Themes of Media Literacy Revealed
In my journey to define media literacy, and determine if I am, in fact, media literate (or if I just play the part in my classroom), I focused heavily on Potter’s four key themes of media literacy:
- Duality of Media’s Impact
- Potential negative and positive individual effects of media.
- Pervasive and subtle impact of its influence.
- Empowerment as Purpose
- Media literacy aims to negate the potential negative effects of mass media.
- Individual empowerment as a means of control.
- Debates surrounding intervention methods; consensus on holistic, contextualized, qualitative methods.
- Continual Development
- Media literacy is not inherent but must instead be developed and maintained.
- Developmental process must be ongoing, long-term, and guided.
- Media literacy is multifaceted, influencing individuals cognitively, emotionally, aesthetically, and morally.
- Development in each of these domains is essential but acquired skills are not necessarily interchangeable.
Based on these themes, being media literate (to me) means becoming both a discerning consumer and an active participant in our digital world. Sounds easy, right? Yeah, not so much…
The Algorithm Behind the Curtain
Full disclosure, I do – or at least, I did – believe I am media literate. After all, I’ve taken numerous classes and PD on the subject. I holistically incorporate media literacy in my classes and at tech seminars for other educators. I carefully curate what I see online. Based on Pałka-Suchojad’s article, if “information recipients [are] more involved in the process of consuming and generating information” (source), then I am the gatekeeper of whatever scrolls across my screen. Clearly, I am the one in control…
Well, now that I think about it objectively, I also:
- Actively filter out information I don’t agree with, partially because I don’t want to provide racism/sexism/classism (insert any “ism” here) a larger audience BUT also because it upsets me and I want it gone. Out of sight out of mind.
- Repeatedly hit the “15 more minutes” button for my social media scrolling despite my iPhone’s repeated FOCUS alerts (much to the bemusement of my husband).
- Sometimes still fall victim to fake news, manipulated/omitted information, and deepfakes.
- Have questionable weekly “Screen Time” stats that I would never allow my children.
So, with all these faults against me…am I the one in control or is the algorithm (I co-created) secretly running the show?
Algorithms are “used to regulate, include/exclude actors, open/close doors, as well as provide means to know more about the world, how to organize this knowledge, and who is authorized to access it” (Frizzera, 2018).
Frizzera further provides key ways algorithms act as the true gatekeepers, highlighting why we must remain vigilante as producers and consumers of media:
- Inherent bias: The interconnectedness of their technical, professional, and socioeconomic dimensions prevents neutrality in their design. This bias can have dire consequences for already marginalized communities.
- Influential actors: Rather than passive tools, they play a central role in a larger social schema, influencing social conditions, as well as human and non-human components.
- Competitive diversity: Systems collaborate and compete, with an overwhelming combination of influences impacting user behaviours, preferences, and decisions.
- Mediator of informational flow: Significant control over how information is spread and consumed between individuals, organizations, and other social actors in a digital space.
And here I thought I was the one operating the controls…
FINAL THOUGHTS: “Now Fly, Fly”
To be truly media literate means to definitely “pay attention to that [algorithm] behind the curtain.” If we naively believe we are the ones in total control, we blindly hand that control away. Being media literate is just one aspect of our literacy as humans, but digital media content is playing an increasingly important role in the emotional and ethical dimensions of our world. Becoming media literate is a continual journey with no final destination (or Emerald City, so to speak). We must constantly adapt to an evolving media landscape by staying informed and holistically aware of the cognitive, emotional, aesthetic, and moral dimensions of our increasingly digital world.
On a personal level, being media literate means I need to consume content that I disagree with and follow my moral compass to call out digital injustice just as I would in the physical world. I must hold myself and big tech accountable, recognizing the lack of representation and championing the voices that often go unnoticed in media. To advocate for universal and fair access to various literacy forms on a global scale. It requires me to practice active critical thinking skills and assess all digital content as “guilty until proven innocent.” To teach and push for more robust, cross-disciplinary digital/media literacy in school and community programming. It means I must be jealous of my time, aware that my literacy – our literacy – extends beyond this screen.
With that thought in mind, I’ll sign off to enjoy a beautiful, sunny day with my family…
POINTS TO PONDER:
As always, feel free to respond to any of the following questions and/or share your personal thoughts on media literacy:
- How do you define media and media literacy? Has your definition/understanding changed over time, and if so, what was the catalyst for this change?
- How do you balance the positive and negative impacts of media in your life?
- Who do you believe controls your online narrative – you, algorithms, or a combination? Have you ever had a moment where you realized an algorithm was guiding your choices/opinions/beliefs?
- What steps do you take and/or teach to stay informed and critically assess digital content?
- How do you balance your time spent on digital screens with other aspects of your life? Do you believe your screen time positively/negatively affects your overall literacy as an individual?