How Does Media Literacy Backfire? (and What That Question Misses)

danah boyd of Microsoft Research (author of It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens), recently gave a talk at the big tech/media/culture conference SXSW called “What Hath We Wrought?” (46 min, 14 min of Q&A) that’s been getting a lot of notice in among scholars of the intersections of media, tech, and education.

boyd shares their concerns about “weaponized critical thinking” and how the trappings and surface-level takes on the concepts of media literacy can have harmful effects, both intended and unintended, for how young people interpret the media narratives they receive,  and how educators ask them to question those narratives:

I found this talk to be a useful review of the recent media landscape, how it is being exploited and (mis)interpreted, and some of the motives people have for that exploitation. Stay or skip to the end (about minute 54) for a fascinating history lesson about the origins of Twitter!

boyd’s talk isn’t the complete picture. Since this talk, there have been a number of responses and critiques:

Renee Hobbs of the Media Education Lab (affiliated with the University of Rhode Island) shared their concerns that boyd was oversimplifying and misunderstanding the actual work of media and information literacy in their response, Freedom to Choose: An Existential Crisis.

Benjamin Doxtdator, a writer on education and society, argues for a deeper look at how the existing power structures of society and state, and the major tech platforms like Google and Facebook (not to mention Microsoft, the company boyd works for) may play a far greater role in creating a rich medium for misinformation than individual bad actors or poorly understood pedagogy in No, ‘cognitive strengthening exercises’ aren’t the answer to media literacy

Maha Bali, a professor at the American University at Cairo, responds to all 3 of the above. In all honesty, if you don’t have time to engage with boyd’s talk or Hobbs’ and Doxtdator’s responses, this is the article to read to get up to speed, since it both serves as effective summation and a reflection on how many of these responses, and any overall solution, must incorporate the interpersonal, the attitudinal, and engagement with the core structural issues of injustice & oppression. Bali is encouraging us, I think, to not miss the forest for the trees, in Too Critical, Not Critical Enough


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