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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 4, 2021 - October 10, 2021

The 21st century brain is a busy one. Most people are on their devices all day, consuming endless amounts of information through social media, messaging apps, websites, news and videos, to name a few.

While this has enabled people to stay updated, deciphering what’s true and what’s not could be overwhelming for them. And while these technologies have enabled greater freedom of expression, they have also promoted the spread of misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. 

Evidently, media literacy skills have become more important than ever at this time. The younger generation, in particular, will need these skills to deal with the onslaught of information online that is unlikely to cease in this digital age.

It is for this reason that a group of teachers and media practitioners in Malaysia came together and formed the Media Literacy for All (ME4A) initiative, which aims to equip teachers with media literacy skills so they can pass them on to their students.

ME4A is developed by social enterprise Arus Academy in collaboration with 15 Malaysian educators from different states, covering both private and public schools. Together with 12 media professionals, they developed the Media Education Academy (MEA), which is a free online course in media literacy. 

MEA was launched in early September and already, 1,700 educators have enrolled. In the same month, ME4A launched the MEA Challenge for educators to build teaching aids incorporating media literacy skills into their lessons.

“I joined this initiative because I realised that many parents are sharing fake news through WhatsApp and Telegram. This became alarming especially when the Movement Control Order (MCO) began. We don’t have the time and skill to counter this kind of fake news,” says Hazwan Bin Hamdan, who teaches English in a religious school in Perak. Hazwan is one of the teacher founders of ME4A. 

“During the MCO, my students had a lot of time in front of their handphones, so they kept sharing things online without thinking of the consequences. That’s why it’s very important for teachers to have media literacy skills, so they can counter these fake messages and share the skills with students and parents.”

Media literacy in a democracy

Media literacy refers to the ability to analyse and evaluate media in different forms. It is not about “protecting” people from unwanted information, according to the US-based Center for Media Literacy, nor is it about memorising facts. Being media literate is being able to ask the right questions and critically assess the information one is consuming. 

Media literacy is the tool with which democracies can preserve the freedom that comes with more access to information, while minimising the threats that come with it, wrote Tessa Jolls, the CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, in a 2018 Hastings Law Journal article. 

“I was a journalist before I became a teacher and later, joined Arus Academy. We were trained to ask questions, verify information and strive for balance in reporting. Today, we see that everyone can be a content creator. Media literacy skills have become so crucial because of that. Even if [we] are not reporting, most of us are creating and sharing messages on social media and shaping the media environment,” says Yam Phui Yee, community engagement lead at Arus.

Social media has also cocooned its users in “filter bubbles” and echo chambers where users, exposed only to information that they agree with, might take that to be the whole truth. This was extensively observed in the US 2016 election. 

“We live in quite a polarised society. The news that we consume both reflects and shapes that polarisation. So, it’s very important for us to be able to distinguish truth from falsehoods. Sometimes, it’s not blatant lies. It’s also what’s foregrounded because of stakeholder interest in the media company or even the cognitive biases of the readers,” says Emily Neoh, a ME4A teacher founder who teaches English in Sri KDU Secondary School.

“The only way forward for society to be able to hold the media or ourselves, as news consumers, accountable, is to be media literate. That is the end goal of this whole movement,” she says.

Some of the basic good habits of a media-literate citizen are to question before you share something on social media, and to be open to correction if false information was shared, says Yam. Of course, what is right and wrong can sometimes be subjective. Everyone’s opinion is coloured by their biases. That is something that the media literate have to take note of as well. 

“All of us are on a spectrum of biasness. [The thing we have to ask is] am I aware of my biases? Have I checked that I gave sufficient consideration to opposing views on my social media? This is another way we can build up a society that is more mature in our thinking, instead of just saying ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’,” says Yam.

Easily integrated into curriculums

The online MEA courses are currently only available in Malay in order to cater to a wider audience. They comprise media literacy tools that can be integrated into all subjects.

ME4A’s goal is for the teachers who take the course to achieve Level 3 or 4 of Unesco’s Media and Information Literacy Framework, and for teachers to immediately apply what they learnt in the classroom.

“We spent a lot of time aligning the media and information literacy standards to our national curriculum standards in different subjects,” says Neoh.

At the end of every module, MEA provides a list of quick activities that teachers can use in their classrooms. This could be on how to verify information by doing a reverse Google image search, for instance, or how to compare and contrast information. 

“We want to push a step further [beyond just identifying fake news] and think about how we react when a family member or friend unknowingly shares that kind of content with us. We don’t just give you the knowledge and skills, but we also give you the framework and principles, as well as helpful phrases to go forth and counter misinformation, disinformation and mal-information,” says Neoh.

At the end of October, in conjunction with the global media and information literacy week, ME4A will showcase the best and winning entries of the MEA Challenge. It also hopes to establish a network of educators in the country who will promote media literacy. 

“We want this programme to be led by educators because we believe that the best people to educate the next generation are the educators. By empowering and enabling them, we can create the huge change that we want,” says David Chak, co-founder and director of Arus. 

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