Media Literacy: How to Flex a Critical Thinking Muscle [INTERVIEW]

What are the best tools to break the vicious circle of constantly proliferating disinformation and fake news? [fot. Unsplash]

Media literacy has to be about very simple flexing of a critical thinking muscle and in understanding why there is a value in recognizing the difference between fake posts, straight news, and opinion – says Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, Founder of Lie Detectors.


The interview with Julianne von Reppert-Bismarck is also available as a podcast on our website, SpotifySoundcloudApple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.


Karolina Zbytniewska, You used to be a member of the advisory high-level expert groups advising the European Commission on fake news, disinformation, and media literacy. You have advised policymakers and governments on anti-radicalization and platform accountability. Now please advise our readers, viewers, and listeners on how to fight disinformation. Let’s begin from the very beginning – how’s disinformation a problem?

Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck*: We’ve been worried about disinformation for a long time and what we’ve seen very simply is that particularly now during the pandemic, unchecked disinformation is working to undermine trust in basic facts and trust in science. It’s really working to undermine the ability of citizens to make simple, informed decisions and with that undermining the very basis of the democratic process and democratic society which after all relies upon the ability of citizens to make informed decisions.

Lie Detectors is an independent media literacy organization where we work with professional journalists to tackle disinformation and its effect on democracy. We do that by sending journalists into classrooms via video conferences during the pandemic, to speak with young people and their teachers on how to tell apart fiction online from facts and to understand how journalism actually works, and by advocating at the international level for smart policies.

The post-truth era started with the fragmentation of traditional news sources and the proliferation of social media. What do you consider the greatest threat coming from disinformation?

The problem is that the longer we work on this the longer we see the disinformation continues to adapt, proliferate, and thereby confound even the most experienced fact-checkers. We have been relying for a long time on fact-checkers and content moderators to delete and eradicate this problem. But disinformation is really evading detection by moving onto those encrypted spaces that we increasingly use to inform ourselves. Those images and video-based platforms are owned often by the largest and most powerful platforms like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and increasingly gaming websites such as Twitch or Discord. This is where people are increasingly gravitating to inform themselves. With very realistic alternatives users can stay trapped in a cycle of providing data to the platforms algorithms and this, in turn, exacerbate the reach of the effect of disinformation. So this a little bit vicious cycle needs to be broken fast.

How the EU is trying to stop this vicious circle? How disinformation is affecting the EU and how does the EU respond? Can it do more and how exactly?

The European Union is in a good position of having a variety of tools at its disposal. Disinformation affects all democratic institutions. It’s based on very powerful incentives of money and of political power. We know that foreign powers continue to subvert democratic processes via manipulative campaigns and disinformation needs to be tackled quickly and from a variety of angles. So we think about this in terms of the supply perspective and the demand perspective. The supply perspective means holding to account the drivers of disinformation through the smart use of EU and international tools. But I mean enforcing data privacy standards, deploying new and existing antitrust tools, really railing in the collection of behavioral data that is such an integral part of the business of outrage and the business of polarization. And the EU is currently working on the drafts of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, the European Democracy Action Plan, the Code of Practice and this really prevents the extraordinary opportunity to get this done.

The basis of solutions must lie therefore in taking information at its source. That means taking on the business model and taking on those elements that monetize lies as the Commission itself has called recently. So follow the money and applying existing and new antitrust principles is a fundamental avenue for securing European democracy at this stage.

How might we reshape media literacy using emerging technologies, that you were talking about, and online tools in order to interact with citizens of all ages for their resilience?

This refers to the other perspective that we have to tackle and that is the demand perspective. Disinformation exists and becomes viral because there is a demand for it and while we cannot expect citizens to do all the work and we do need governments and policymakers, regulators to step in. There is also something that can be done from the point of view of citizens. We call for three separate acts in the field of media literacy.

Firstly, we call for critical media literacy to become an integral part of all school curricular and also of all teacher training curricula. For that, all teachers regardless of the subject area they are teaching can address this issue with their students without that quarrels or worries.

Secondly, we call for increased investments in media literacy and in teacher training so that the independence of this training is really guaranteed and that’s a very important issue, that worries the teaching profession at the moment quite a lot.

Fundamentally we call for media literacy to be considered a core literacy. Alongside basic literacies like reading, writing, and counting. The fourth literacy that needs to be added, is the ability to check a fact. And that should be reflected at the OECD level, at the UNESCO level, and all the way down to the regional and local level.

Very concrete recommendations. And how could a news ecosystem be shaped to better fit the citizens’ attitude habits and approaches so that they don’t turn to a malign misinformation source?

We do see that young people really aren’t on those text-based, traditional platforms that we consider to be news carriers, such as Facebook or Twitter. Young media users are focused on visual news sources, image and video-based news sources, very difficult to moderate. Newsrooms around the world have actually become adapting to this reality already. It is important that brand recognition remains. There is a way for checking sources, even when you’re just watching a video. Given the oversupply of information in the age of news, there is also value in peer assessment among quality media. The New York Times does something very interesting here when it comes to high-interest news stories, showcase news coverage, and also opinion coverage from across the political media spectrum. As long as it is credible and reliably sourced. So they make space for diverging views to actually pinpoint what they consider to be quality and well-researched media.

Let’s come back to training for a moment and look into your practical tool kit. So what are some of the good practices that you use to help school children, young people improve their media literacy and recognize dis and misinformation?

We work mainly with 10-15-year-olds. But we have also adapted work to working with teachers and even adults and senior citizens. There are various points of best practice that we have identified. There’s a very important thing to keep in mind an interactive approach when you are talking about media literacy. This is not about top-down teaching. It’s the only way that you can actually ensure that we remain relevant and that media literacy begins and continues to address existing problems in a really rapidly evolving media landscape where diverging news exposure is created by algorithms and people who are very differently experienced in what is going on in the world so it got to be interactive and question-based.

Secondly, we teach children very basic journalistic methods. We really have in mind that everyone should have these journalistic methods to hand and that is the ability to check multiple sources that the OECD calls multi-source literacy, the value of different sources to build knowledge-based on that. So we also teach the children to think about the context in which images may be appearing, checking the date. It’s quite simple, we teach them something they really love which is the reverse image search with a technical trick which can be quite fun to do. And one very important thing is also that we really considered the importance to discuss the fact that disinformation exists because there is a demand for it and also discussing the issue of confirmation by us. Particularly at the time of pandemic when people are in crisis and in need to reach disinformation that presents an easy solution and answer to a very complicated question.

Finally, one very important thing is also that we work with examples that are not always political. It can’t always be about refugee policy or religious tolerance when we talk about media literacy and news literacy. We work with examples such as – is it true that a man is married to his pet or there is a photo of a shark that has been photoshopped in the wrong context. So it’s really important to stay light, non-political when you’re trying to affect change on a very broad level. Because if you make it too political you risk alienating adults and it can become irrelevant to young people who may just put this down as a problem for adults that does not affect them. Media literacy has to be about very simple flexing of a critical thinking muscle and in understanding why there is a value in understanding the difference between fake posts, straight news, and opinion. And everything else must come from that starting point.

Because of a current health crisis related to COVID-19, our lives have shifted greatly. Our screen time has soared. How has this shift into digital life affected our consumption of information? Has it affected our ability to distinguish between fake news and truth and made us vulnerable or nothing has changed?

These days we’re going to classrooms via video conferences as we can’t walk in. When we see the children on the screen, we see them line up and they ask questions about things like „is it true that the virus was made in a lab or and that it was released on purpose?”, „is it true that wearing a mask makes me less safe” and may also say „what should I do if I receive an e-mail from my aunt telling me to circulate news that Bill Gates is trying to get all of us microchipped”? So yes, there is confusion and what we see is also a growing presence of conspiracy theories in this new phenomenon, which is worrying because conspiracy theories are the ultimate deep fake multiple layers of distortion. And the big news is that people really are interested, possibly more interested than they have ever been. The pandemic has really made this topic more widely and extremely relevant.

Finally, before Lie Detectors you were in award-winning journalists writing for the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Reuters, Spiegel Online, and many others. What is in your view the role of traditional media and journalists in fighting disinformation?

We see journalists really must occupy a central role in disinformation and also in speaking to other communities about media literacy and how to go about this do-it-yourself model tracking disinformation. They also must continue a high quality and independent reporting which is tricky at a time and a business model is under pressure. The European Commission’s Democracy Action Plan recognized that both of the acts they’ve placed on media pluralism, but also by supporting journalism work to promote media literacy. We welcome this very much. We work with more than 250 journalists from four countries and these journalists tell us very frequently that fighting disinformation and promoting media literacy is one of the fundamental things they feel they have to do to secure the journalism that they do.


*Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck is the founder of Lie Detectors, an award-winning and journalist-led news literacy project in Europe. She directs its strategy, development and advocacy and represents the project as a member of the advisory High-Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation and High-Level Group on Media Literacy convened by the European Commission. Juliane has advised policy-makers and governments on anti-radicalisation and platform accountability.