Misinformation can harm health, life choices, and even democracy, but the essential skills needed to identify it are rarely taught. With insights from a study he and five colleagues recently published, Peter Cunliffe-Jones argues for an expanded definition of media literacy.

In 2017, researchers at Stanford University in California sat 25 high-flying undergraduates, 10 history PhDs, and 10 professional fact-checkers down and tasked each with evaluating information found online. The topics were bullying in schools, the minimum wage, and teacher tenure.

The historians and undergraduates were all highly capable individuals, researchers Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew said. But in every task, “the fact-checkers were both quicker and more accurate”. The difference was the fact-checkers’ methods.

Around the world, calls for media literacy to serve as an antidote to misinformation have multiplied since 2016. From the United States to Finland, educators have launched media literacy programmes. In Senegal, president Macky Sall called for the teaching of media literacy to “counter ‘fake news’ and other false information”.

The snag is that even students at a prestigious university in Silicon Valley, where media literacy is thought a given, struggle with “nearly every aspect of gathering and evaluating information online”, the study concluded. “What if the problem is not that we’re failing to teach media literacy but that we’re teaching the wrong kind?” the researchers asked.

A peer-reviewed study five colleagues and I published this month (1) suggests that, in many countries, the type of media literacy taught is indeed part of the problem. Once narrowly focused, the concept of media literacy has expanded greatly over time, American educationalist Patricia Aufderheide wrote as long ago as 1993.

For Dr Robert Keener at the University of Washington, the concept of media literacy as taught today is now so broad as to “lack all conceptual rigour”. While a 2012 meta-analytic review of 51 media literacy interventions worldwide found overall “positive effects”, studies by the Stanford group, Keener and others show the subject leaves students still struggling to identify false statements correctly.

Media literacy teaching in seven countries

Our research looked at the teaching of media literacy themes in the curricula of public schools in seven sub-Saharan countries (2).

Côte d’Ivoire introduced a new curriculum in 2017, including “basic digital, or ICT, skills”, but no further aspects of media literacy. In Ghana, the curriculum addresses “civic education and behaviour” but not more. Kenya has its own new curriculum, including basic digital skills, which lists critical thinking and problem-solving as core competencies.

Nigeria’s curriculum includes ICT skills. Senegal’s has no media literacy elements of any sort. Uganda’s curriculum, introduced in 2019, features basic online search techniques and news terminology.

None of these seven curricula address misinformation.

In summary, the curricula used in six countries feature some limited elements of broadly defined media literacy, but no focus on misinformation. South Africa was a partial exception. The national curriculum features a wider range of media literacy themes, from mass media formats to concepts such as media freedom and bias. But it has little, except for a section on online hoaxes, specifically on misinformation.

In 2020, however, an “online safety” programme with a focus on false information was launched in Western Cape schools. Ismail Teladia of the Western Cape Education Department said the programme aimed to promote “click restraint”, markers to identify suspect websites and the harmful effects of misinformation. Teladia is the department’s senior curriculum planner for Life Orientation.

Is this enough?

The Stanford study and others suggest not. In 2020, researchers Emily Vraga, Melissa Tully and colleagues proposed a new theory of “news literacy” as “knowledge of the personal and social processes by which news is produced, distributed, and consumed, and skills that allow users some control over these processes”. They said knowledge and skills in five areas – context, creation, content, circulation, and consumption – were required for a person to be news literate.

News literacy is both a broader and a narrower concept than misinformation, much of which circulates far from news or social media platforms. Based on our knowledge of the types, drivers, and effects of misinformation, and of fact-checking practices – as well as a review of other studies – we put forward a different concept: “misinformation literacy”.

This, we argue, is “knowledge of the forms that misinformation and accurate information take; the processes by which they are produced or emerge, are distributed and consumed, by whom, where, and on what topics; and the skills to distinguish the one from the other”. Putting it into practice constitutes “media literacy behaviour.”

Misinformation literacy – knowledge and skills to identify misinformation

These are the six Cs of misinformation literacy.

  1. Context: the context in which misinformation and accurate information are produced

  2. Creation: who creates misinformation and who creates accurate information

  3. Content: the main types or forms of false content, and how to identify key features distinguishing this from fair and accurate content

  4. Circulation: the processes by which false and accurate information circulate, and can thus be identified

  5. Consumption: the reasons for which individuals, ourselves included, consume and believe false information

  6. Consequences: the consequences of believing and sharing false information.

The model needs to be tested but there is reason to believe gaining knowledge and skills in the six fields helps people identify and dismiss misinformation. A study published in 2020 showed that being able to anticipate the context and type of misinformation “can reduce susceptibility to misinformation”.

Knowing the types of people and organisations who create false information, as well as those who create reliable information, has the same effect. The fact-checkers’ technical skills and processes in unmasking fake accounts and pages are key, as the Stanford study showed.

Many studies show the public struggle to distinguish different forms of content. Fact-checking organisations worldwide train staff in skills such as verification and geolocation of online images, and the different ways false or misleading information distorts understanding.

A 2019 study showed that understanding how information circulates, including a “working knowledge of how the news media operate”, helps people sort between true and false news. Understanding the biases in how we consume information – why we as individuals may believe false information to be true – is essential to misinformation literacy.

And our research suggests knowing the possible consequences of misinformation influences what we share.

Obstacles to misinformation literacy

There are many real and perceived obstacles to teaching this sort of misinformation literacy. As we set out in our report, these range from bureaucratic challenges – underfunding schools and poor teacher training – to planners’ perception that curricula are already overloaded.

These challenges are not unique to Africa, as research from Latin America and Asia shows. But they are not impossible to overcome. The biggest challenge is political will.

1. Dr Sahite Gaye is a researcher and lecturer at the Centre d’Etudes des Sciences et des Techniques de l’Information (CESTI) at l'Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD), Senegal. Wallace Gichunge is the Executive Director of the Centre for Media & Information Literacy in Kenya. Dr Chido Onumah is the Coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy in Abuja, Nigeria. Cornia Pretorius is a researcher and lecturer in journalism and media studies at North-West University's Potchefstroom site in South Africa. Dr Anya Schiffrin is the Director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialisation at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, United States.

2. Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.

Published by AFRICA CHECK