View from the Capitol to the giant ‘Trump Statue’ that supplanted the Washington Monument. It’s not real, luckily. It was generated by AI and put together using image editing software.

Media liter­acy as a key to a resi­li­ent society

Given the rise in media concentration and the shift in media usage, our society finds itself faced with the challenge of establishing a reliable pool of information. With AI taking hold in the media and fake news being disseminated all the time, there’s no denying that media literacy is critical to ensuring the resilience of society.

The repu­ta­ble repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the media are facing a tough time finan­ci­ally. Barely a week goes by without another publi­shing house announ­cing job cuts. And it’s easier than ever to access all kinds of sources of infor­ma­tion online. It’s not a recent reali­sa­tion that our use of the media has drasti­cally chan­ged. These days, people tend to turn to social media plat­forms, websites and strea­ming services to stay up to date. Against this back­drop, we seriously have to ask oursel­ves whether deli­be­rate attempts to spread fake news have an impact on society. 

‘They abso­lut­ely do,’ says Mari­anne Läder­ach, Head of Medi­en­in­sti­tut Verle­ger­ver­band SCHWEIZER MEDIEN. ‘These campaigns are crea­ted with the primary inten­tion of under­mi­ning people’s trust in the struc­tures and insti­tu­ti­ons in our society.’ Fake news, or disin­for­ma­tion, has the poten­tial to seriously desta­bi­lise society.

EAccor­ding to Jere­mias Schul­t­hess, CEO of Fairm­edia, disin­for­ma­tion can even be clas­sed as a form of warfare. If we needed proof of the power and poten­tial of fake news, the Big Lie, Donald Trump’s false claim that the elec­tion was stolen from him, gave it to us. The mob attack on the US Capi­tol buil­ding reve­a­led the vulnerabi­lity of a tradi­tio­nal western democracy.

This is exactly what Fairm­edia is fight­ing against. The asso­cia­tion advo­ca­ting for fair jour­na­lism and demo­cracy is on a mission to reveal exactly how fake news works through Fairm­edia­WATCH. It demons­tra­tes how mani­pu­la­ted images and fake news are also disse­mi­na­ted in Switz­er­land and expo­ses the methods used to turn infor­ma­tion into disinformation.

Guido Keel, Head of the Insti­tute of Applied Media Studies at Zurich Univer­sity of Applied Scien­ces (ZHAW), does believe that this is still less of a problem in Switz­er­land than in other count­ries. This is mainly down to the fact that there are seve­ral small media systems in Switz­er­land, where jour­na­lism is still going strong in rela­tive terms. Guido Keel also thinks that pola­ri­sa­tion is not such a problem in Switz­er­land as it is in other count­ries. Nevert­hel­ess, things are fore­ver beco­ming more chal­len­ging for readers. 

Mani­pu­la­tion is so much easier these days. Tech­no­lo­gi­cal advan­ces in AI are making so much straight­for­ward and reali­sti­cally so.

AI capa­bi­lity

At this point, it’s still hard for us to predict what risks will come with fake news being crea­ted by AI. There’s not much evidence to go on yet. But Guido Keel has alre­ady iden­ti­fied one defi­nite danger. ‘AI poses a threat because it’s jeopar­di­sing the busi­ness model of media compa­nies, which is alre­ady imper­fect as it is. By revo­lu­tio­ni­s­ing the way things are done, funda­men­tal chan­ges are requi­red that are nothing short of disrup­tive.’ He draws paral­lels with Google and Face­book chan­ging the way people consu­med media 20 and 10 years ago and the way media compa­nies respon­ded to those chan­ges. ‘We tend to welcome change in the hope that it’ll bring us bene­fits, but it inevi­ta­bly comes with all kinds of chal­lenges too,’ he says. ‘The story is repea­ting itself with AI but on a much bigger scale.’ Tradi­tio­nal media compa­nies need to focus on adop­ting the right approach to the tech­no­logy. AI is here. It’s going to be used. But the ways in which it’s used aren’t yet set in stone. AI is likely to open up oppor­tu­ni­ties too – and that could even apply to jour­na­lists. That is, as long as the tech­no­logy comple­ments their jour­na­lism work rather than repla­cing it. 

Andrew Holland from Stif­tung Merca­tor Schweiz doesn’t see that as a serious threat. ‘AI can auto­mate some aspects of the media produc­tion process and make them more effi­ci­ent. It won’t replace the rese­arch and analy­sis that jour­na­lists do, though,’ he says with confi­dence. ‘Quality jour­na­lism relies on a wide range of skills, such as emotio­nal intel­li­gence and ethi­cal aware­ness. Proper jour­na­lists also have to be able to under­stand the context. Humans are still needed to deli­ver the quality.’ He also belie­ves there is a credi­bi­lity issue with AI language models – for now at least. 

For him, the accu­racy of content is still dubious at least some of the time. Media consump­tion has chan­ged and that can be explai­ned largely by the sheer volume of new chan­nels. When it comes to the source behind the infor­ma­tion, there is some­ti­mes more and some­ti­mes less trans­pa­rency. With so many chan­nels now, the barriers to disse­mi­na­ting infor­ma­tion and disin­for­ma­tion have been lowered.

Key skill

‘It has become easier to publish content,’ says Andrew Holland. ‘The media have become less important when it comes to sharing infor­ma­tion and content, which is weak­e­ning the power they have.’ He sees this as an oppor­tu­nity and a threat. Social discourse can become more diverse and free if we’re no longer rely­ing on a few media compa­nies to decide what is and isn’t published. ‘At the same time, all the new voices joining in with the conver­sa­tion and the rules of jour­na­lism being broken down are enough to leave you feeling disori­en­ta­ted,’ he says. People are deal­ing with this situa­tion differ­ently depen­ding on their age. Every gene­ra­tion has their own ways of acces­sing infor­ma­tion and their own barriers stop­ping them from acces­sing infor­ma­tion. Older people some­ti­mes struggle to get to grips with new tech­no­logy, while youn­ger people don’t often access news in the tradi­tio­nal ways. ‘You don’t come across many young people who subscribe to a news­pa­per or listen to the local news when they’re eating their break­fast,’ says Jere­mias Schul­t­hess. This state of affairs worries him. He belie­ves we should be concer­ned about any poten­tial decline in how infor­med people are about what’s happe­ning in poli­tics and society. That would make it even easier to spread fake news. This is why it’s so important that we give people the trai­ning they need to improve their media liter­acy. Mari­anne Läder­ach agrees that this is a sensi­ble course of action for society: ‘There’s so much infor­ma­tion and news from diffe­rent sources out there – espe­ci­ally on social media. People need to think carefully about how to deal with this over­whel­ming barrage of infor­ma­tion and how to ques­tion it criti­cally to form their own opini­ons. Prac­tice makes perfect.’

“The world is getting more complex” is the title of Fran­çois Chalet’s illustration.

Trust­wor­thy source

Helping people improve their media liter­acy is chal­len­ging on so many levels. This trai­ning has to cover more than just using the tech­no­logy and being fami­liar with trust­wor­thy media outlets. Guido Keel belie­ves that the atti­tude also has to be right. ‘Young people might be better equip­ped to spot fake news and assess infor­ma­tion shared on social media nowa­days. But that doesn’t stop them from absor­bing infor­ma­tion at random or focu­sing on media coverage about issues that aren’t all that rele­vant to society.’ Some people are no doubt wonde­ring about their own media liter­acy level. Merca­tor, SRG, Medi­en­in­sti­tut and Poli­tools laun­ched earlier this year for that very reason. It allows ever­yone to test their own media liter­acy. Without a doubt, media compa­nies need to take media liter­acy seriously. They risk even more than just losing their readers and their own commer­cial success. A lack of media liter­acy has the poten­tial to under­mine their autho­rity. The credi­bi­lity of their infor­ma­tion is at risk of being called into ques­tion. And then our demo­cra­tic society will be without a relia­ble shared pool of know­ledge. ‘Any increase in vulnerabi­lity along these lines is a real danger for our func­tio­ning demo­cra­tic society,’ says Mari­anne Läderach. 

“A well-infor­med popu­la­tion resists mani­pu­la­tion attempts and scare­mon­ge­ring more easily.”

Andrew Holland, Mana­ging Direc­tor of the Merca­tor Foun­da­tion Switzerland

As tradi­tio­nal media outlets lose their autho­rity, it beco­mes even easier for disin­for­ma­tion to be spread and accepted. ‘As the autho­rity of the media dwind­les, the path is clear for others to move into a posi­tion of power. And then it beco­mes easier for mani­pu­la­tive content to be shared,’ adds Jere­mias Schul­t­hess. He belie­ves that tradi­tio­nal media – online and print are both expli­citly included in that descrip­tion – should ideally be buil­ding resi­li­ence in society. ‘In this context, I would say that a resi­li­ent society is one that can with­stand exter­nal disrup­tion. One exam­ple of exter­nal disrup­tion in a demo­cracy would be a rise in extreme autho­ri­ta­rian tenden­cies. The media have to faci­li­tate a cons­truc­tive dialo­gue within main­stream society to avoid any such situa­tions.’ The loss of autho­rity has even more serious conse­quen­ces for a demo­cra­tic society because, as Guido Keel points out, this affects the autho­rity of the media and various social insti­tu­ti­ons. ‘This leads to frag­men­ta­tion, with dialo­gue between diffe­rent groups being jeopar­di­sed or strai­ned – all the more so in the context of deli­be­rate disin­for­ma­tion and hate speech.’ In normal times, the issues asso­cia­ted with this kind of frag­men­ta­tion may be hard to spot. But the risks to society make them­sel­ves known at times of crisis. ‘When society is hit by hard times, open social discourse is abso­lut­ely essen­tial in over­co­ming the crisis,’ says Guido Keel. ‘If the option of social discourse that invol­ves as many people as possi­ble is gone and all that remains is pola­ri­sed inter­ac­tion in segre­ga­ted bubbles, there’s no longer any chance of common under­stan­ding. And yet that’s a requi­re­ment for buil­ding resi­li­ence in society.’ The media need to take action. It’s their respon­si­bi­lity to insti­gate the social discourse. And it’s in their gift to learn from all rele­vant groups in society by docu­men­ting their ideas and perspec­ti­ves and presen­ting them in rela­tion to one another. ‘If you ask me, this role of the media as a forum is key to social cohe­sion,’ he says. 

Shared pool of knowledge

It follows that it’s in a society’s inte­rest that its members absorb a certain amount of infor­ma­tion. What a society needs is a shared pool of know­ledge that faci­li­ta­tes discourse, dialo­gue and debate. That is the basis for a resi­li­ent society. ‘If the popu­la­tion is well infor­med, people will be better equip­ped to see past attempts to mani­pu­late and scare tactics,’ says Andrew Holland. This respon­si­bi­lity falls to the media. ‘Media outlets that rese­arch and contex­tua­lise in line with estab­lished prin­ci­ples of jour­na­lism are helping to build resi­li­ence in society. They are also encou­ra­ging the public to form opini­ons by giving infor­ma­tion the right context and weight, ther­eby making it easier for people to get invol­ved in demo­cra­tic society,’ he says. ‘Quality media commu­ni­ca­ti­ons can be deli­vered in tradi­tio­nal and new formats alike.’ 

Editor’s note: the author is the Co-Presi­dent of Fairmedia.

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