Image source: Ethics in Bricks
This last Christmas was unusual for several well-known reasons. One of them, though, was “the Queen’s alternative Christmas message,” a video created by UK’s Channel 4 using deep fake technology and a pinch of (dark) comedy to create a fake video inappropriately attributed to Queen Elizabeth II. While condemned for its audacity, this little experiment showed the world how far data manipulation and fake media have gone.
In his article published in Boise State University ScholarWorks Publication, Dr. Seth Ashley condensed a poignant truth of today’s society by observing that “[t]he twenty-first century is a media-saturated, technologically dependent, and globally connected world.”
Unsurprisingly, media literacy has become a critical skill for judges and lawyers alike, as the legal profession uses media sources to a greater extent than others. A correct interpretation of facts, unclouded by media manipulation, is the bedrock of a healthy justice system.
The US Center for Media Literacy defines media literacy as “[a] framework for accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating media. [It is t]he development of critical thinking and production skills needed to live fully in the 21st-century media culture.” The Center goes on and expands the definition by ascertaining that media literacy is “the ability to communicate competently in all media forms, print and electronic, as well as to access, understand, and analyze, and evaluate the powerful images, words, and sounds that make up our contemporary mass media culture.”
In itself, media literacy represents the competency allowing the bearer to identify various categories of media content and understand the message thus conveyed. Although distinctive and somehow contrasting, all media has one thing in common: someone created it for a specific reason. Understanding that reason is the very core of media literacy.
If implemented correctly, media literacy can even override the need for censorship and limitation of specific content types. Indeed, by educating media consumers on how media content is created and on the occasional rift between this content and actual reality, people will be able to get to the root of the message sent. In effect, censorship creates taboos that make the banned material even more attractive to consumers, an outcome that must be avoided at all costs.
But media literacy has another vital role for society, as a whole, and law, in particular, and that is to be a tool for identifying the truth. Following a year where media education literally made the difference between life and death in terms of conspiracy theories and instigation to disobey sanitary measures, it is reasonable to question if media consumers are discriminating enough to demand fact-checked, reliable, and truthful information from any media content creator, be them journalists or your average Joe sharing information on social media platforms. The sad reality is that, more often than not, journalists give consumers what they want to hear rather than what they ought to know. Equally dangerous, your friend or connection might share something more likely to get him/her likes and shares, thus sacrificing facts responsibility. Never before in humanity’s history has the ordinary individual had so much indiscriminate freedom of expression and so little preparedness for the overwhelming volume of information.
With the knowledge of media creation and dissemination comes the demand for more regulated and responsible journalism. Media literacy is not solely about the people or the content; it is equally about what influence information has on people and how they react to it. Consumers still need to grasp how everything they put in the public domain can be not only forever present in the archives kept by specialized websites but also cause lasting damage to people, industries, and the world itself.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- fake news and alternative facts
- the importance of media education for law professionals and law students
Fake news and alternative facts
While fake news and alternative facts are somehow similar, they are not synonymous. In fact, let’s try defining them:
- Fake news – customarily, the concept of “fake news” was defined as a news story that was unprofessional or untruthful. But, for what it’s worth, these stories were characterized by their falsehood and not by their authors’ or readers’ perception of them. Things have changed in the past four years or so, though. Since then, the concept of fake news has become interchangeable with reader-perspective so much so that nowadays, more and more people consider any information to diverge from their projected reality to be (blatantly) fake news.
Intuitively, the online and on-air proliferation of fake news is motivated by money. The pay-per-click method, for example, incentivizes the authors to flood the public domain with untruthful information. The more outrageous and clickbaity, the more people seem intrigued and drawn to such materials. Naturally, content creators are more motivated to go down this rabbit hole in complete disregard of how even one false story can have rippling effects throughout society.
- Alternative Facts and Disinformation – this term has become equivalent to a willingness to persevere with a particular assumption either in complete ignorance of or in total disregard for reality. Given its reach, it is, in fact, social media that disseminate such information. Alarmingly, “disinformation campaigns on social media are designed to create confusion and erode trust in democratic institutions.” And, to this point, there is no fault-proof method to repel the rapid dissemination of false statements and disinformation.
But it is not the mere defamation of real facts that should frighten us, but instead people’s belief “that there are so many shades of gray that clear facts just don’t really exist.” This fuels a never-ending cycle of media mistrust and skepticism towards authorities.
Needless to say, lawyers must be prepared to evaluate and fight fake news, alternative facts, and disinformation campaigns, both for their own business and the wellbeing of our society. Their professional competence is determined by their capacity to see through media manipulation and bias. Apart from their daily practice of law, lawyers, judges, and prosecutors should be at the forefront of the war against media corruption and wrongly understood freedom of speech. The media literate lawyer will be a crucial factor in the defense of democracy.
Importance for Law Professionals and Law Students
Media literacy education can help contain and eradicate fake news, alternative facts, and the pervasive dissemination of misinformation in the midst of our society. Now more than ever, media literacy should be mandatory at all levels of our educational system. Students and professionals with media literacy education will be capable of critically analyzing the media messages and ascertaining the truthfulness, falsehood, and/or biases of media communication in both their professional and personal lives. “Media no longer just shape our culture – they ARE our culture.”
Media literacy is not only a domestic issue. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “[e]mpowerment of people through information and media literacy is an important prerequisite for fostering equitable access to information and knowledge, and building inclusive knowledge societies.” Lawyers are the stewards of civic rights, economic justice, and the rule of law. From this perspective, it is paramount that lawyers be educated in critical thinking in all aspects of their professional life.
Source: Philosophy Matters
This also includes thinking critically about how media communicate to clients and how that shapes our society. As a matter of fact, US National Association for Media Literacy Education emphasized that “[b]eing literate in a media age requires critical thinking skills that empower us as we make decisions, whether in the classroom, the living room, the workplace, the boardroom, or the voting booth.” Thus, media education is inseparably connected to the idea of justice.
As a lawyer, your critical thinking is incomplete without the ability to see through media contents to ascertain the message, facts, disinformation, and biases the online and on-air media pour daily in their interaction with the consumers. Advocating for your clients means, above all, sieving through the information soup in full awareness of the effects information dissemination has on the general public. “Media literacy helps us understand how media create cultures, and how the “media monopoly” – the handful of giant corporations that control most of our media – affects our politics and our society.”
From the feud between Octavian and Marcus Antonius to Nazi propaganda denouncing the very existence of the Holocaust, all the way through unscientific anti-vaccines gibberish and conspiracy theories, fake news has always plagued human society. The question is not whether or not disinformation will always exist—it most certainly will—the question is how to fight it.
Showing the absolute insanity surrounding the alternative facts maze and, at the same time, alerting us to the danger posed by these new developments, the Oxford dictionary chose “post-truth” as its Word of the Year in 2016. By their definition, post-truth is “relating to denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Given the nature of a lawyer’s job, it goes without saying that it is our mission as legal professionals to fight back the “post-truth” world before it overtakes the real world. The point of no return has not yet been reached. But, absent real, enforceable measures, we will soon be pulled by the gravitational force of the generalized reality deformation towards the post-truth singularity.
But this ability does not necessarily come naturally to many of us. Media literacy is a learned skill, similar to legal analogy or logical inference. Luckily, there are numerous courses and resources to help you understand the concepts better. In turn, every media content consumer and, especially, legal practitioners must undergo proper education on how to recognize and evaluate facts, opinions, media messages, and the media creator’s innate bias if they want to become the arbiters of truth in the information age. As such, legal education should take this problem in all its seriousness and ensure that the graduates they provide to be guardians of justice are media literate enough to practice law with a trained eye towards the content they consume, use, and create. In the words of Phillip Meyer, “[i]f we exist exclusively in a hall of mirrors where there are no actual facts but only alternative facts, then there may be judgment but not justice.”
This post is a part of the series called #FutureProofLegal in which we describe the skills and roles/jobs that future legal professionals (lawyers and beyond) shall acquire. To learn more or read other articles in the series go to our #FutureProofLegal page.