Media Literacy in the Age of Information Overload

Obah Rosaline Cameroon, Central Africa

Media Literacy in the Age of Information Overload

Media literacy is the method of dissecting media content in order to critically analyze it. Media literacy is a crucial skill all media consumers must-have.

On the other hand, Information overload is a situation in which you receive much information at a time and cannot think about it in a clear way. The term was coined by Bertram Gross, a Political Science professor at Hunter College in his paper The Managing of Organizations, published in 1964, long before the internet existed. It was used to describe the inability of decision-makers to reach a quality conclusion when they were presented with a huge amount of data.

Stanley Baran, in the Introduction to Mass Communication, speaks of a term he calls “third-person effect”. This encompasses the idea that as consumers we believe media affects others but not ourselves (24). Being media literate allows us to see that this is untrue and media does in fact have underlying messages that affect us.

The Problem with Too Much Information

We can’t really multitask — not productively at least. Have you ever scrolled through Instagram while watching Netflix? Have you been convinced that you’re attentively consuming whatever show is playing to suddenly realize you have no clue why the heroine is crying? This is because you weren’t multitasking at all, but rather overloading your brain with stimuli and information. While this might seem harmless, information multitasking can actually lower one’s IQ by ten points. It can also lead to internet addiction.

Being over-exposed to digital media can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being as well as cause various physical problems such as backaches, headaches, weight gain, and/or weight loss, blurred vision, carpal tunnel syndrome, and many others (cue fade out of fast-paced commercial voice). But besides the harm to the individual user, information overload also has a negative effect on modern society.

The Spread of Fake News/Misinformation/Disinformation

The freedom of the internet and the fact that virtually anyone can publish anything they want online has made it increasingly difficult to distinguish between real and fabricated information.

According to a study titled, Limited individual attention and online virality of low-quality information, the accuracy of information doesn’t have an effect on its popularity on social networking sites. “Low- and high-quality information have the same chances to succeed,” stated Diego Olivera, co-author of the study. In order to lessen the spread of fabricated news, researchers suggested social media platforms should take a more aggressive stance on removing “bots” or algorithms with fake profiles. Bot accounts “make up a significant portion of online profiles and many of them flood social media with high volumes of low-quality information to manipulate the public discourse.”

The Emergence of Deep Fakes

Further into the rabbit hole of false news, misinformation and disinformation, is something called a “deep fake.” A deep fake uses artificial intelligence to combine and superimpose existing images and videos onto new images or videos. It uses the technology invented by student Ian Goodfellow in 2014 called the “generative adversarial network” that can recognize patterns in a person’s behaviour through audio or video renderings, which can then be used to doctor various media by blending it with other content.

Back then, the use of this technology was limited to the artificial intelligence research community but in late 2017, a Reddit user called “Deepfakes,” a portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake,” started posting doctored pornographic videos. In response, Reddit panned the account for violating the site’s content policy but by this time, the creator of the videos had already released FakeApp — an application that can create forged videos and images.

With this technology, it is now possible to make politicians and celebrities look like they are doing or saying whatever you want because of the abundance of visual data available of them online. These deep fake videos are hyper-realistic and difficult to detect.

Applications like this further add to the difficulties we already have with sifting through information online, similarly, if not more harmfully, than fake news.

The Way Forward:

Developing Media Literacy Skills Today:

Today, we are living in what is known as the Digital Age and the only constant is that it will continue to develop and expand for future generations. It is important for everyone to develop and expand along with the media, in order to properly understand what is being circulated. For this to happen, we need to develop media literacy skills.

It’s crucial for this to be taught to school age children, especially now with more children being exposed to media at a younger age. Today, children are being introduced to media even before their formal educations (Hopkins, 24). Media literacy skills are crucial for, “developing knowledge about the social, political, and economic forces that influence media content” (Pavlik and McIntosh, 40). These skills will help in keeping the mind active when looking at different media platforms, instead of keeping a passive mind

There are seven main media literacy skills (Baran, 24). The first is “the ability and willingness to make an effort to understand content, to pay attention and filter out noise” (Baran, 24). This means consumers should distinguish the points an article is trying to make and ignore factors that could influence their thinking. Thus, changing the way we consume media. An example could be when you are listening to the radio while driving. What is your main focus, the radio or driving? Hopefully driving, but this means you could misinterpret what’s on the radio. By realizing what factors affect your interpretation, you can be more mindful of when content you are absorbing.

Second is, “having an understanding of, and respect for, the power of media messages” (Baran, 24). There’s so much media content in circulation and it’s important to understand how many people the content is available for. It is imperative not dismiss that fact, because it can be very powerful. For example, some articles can convey stereotypes. If we dismiss that, it hurts the group being stereotyped and other marginalized groups. It is important that we recognize and stand up against it.

Third, the “ability to distinguish emotional from reasoned reactions when responding to content and act accordingly” (Baran, 24). Sometimes, we connect with certain media like songs and books because we can relate to them on an emotional level. Rather, it’s important to keep in mind that content like this may not always be true, despite our emotional ties with it.

Some media content may be trying to persuade you by keying into your emotional reactions; it’s essential to keep this in mind when analyzing media messages.

Fourth, is the “development of heightened expectations of media content” (Baran, 24). This is referring to viral videos or articles on the internet that are the “most viewed” or “top ten” that we settle on and give meaning to, when we are not searching for anything specific. Today, on the internet there is so much content to filter through that we tend to scroll through it mindlessly, not looking for underlying messages, or meaning. When on the internet if there is not a specific thing you’re looking for, it’s easy to give meaning to the random content you fall upon.

Next, is “the knowledge of genre conventions and the recognition of their mixing” (Baran, 24-25). This means to it’s necessary to understand different genres and how information is given by those sources. For example, we are more likely to believe a documentary about weight loss, then what’s in a magazine for weight loss. By being aware of that fact you can determine what is true and what is not, or if the source is reputable.

Sixth, is “the ability to think critically about media messages” (Baran, 25). This means not everything you read on the internet will be true, even if it comes from a credible source. For example, if Fox News presented an article it’s important to remember that they are being paid by people who believe the same things, so their media will be biased to whom they are getting paid from to support those views.

Seventh is “the knowledge of the internal language of various media and the ability to understand its effects” (Baran, 25). This comes down to understanding how media is produced; to pay attention to camera angles, lighting, text sizes, and location. Understanding this language will help you to take informed decisions on the credibility of the content and media. As the media continues to grow, it continues to matter.

In today’s world the media is constantly around us. We are always interacting with mass media, so it’s essential to learn from our experiences with it. John Pavlik and Shawn McIntosh in their book Converging Media: A New Introduction to Mass Communication explain that we learn topics such as math and history in school, but not media literacy (45). They bring up the question; if we are interacting with the media so much, why are we not learning about it? Media literacy encourages thinking for ourselves, and questioning what is being told to us. Media literacy “emphasizes the skills and knowledge needed to be effective in the increasingly social media environment” (Hobbs and Jensen, 5). We are introduced to media at an increasingly younger age, so we should start learning about media and its underlying messages sooner. Our society has a “culture that absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media….” (Hobbs and Jensen, 5); we thrive off of media, and because of this media literacy skills are so important.

In Conclusion:

The use of technology has become more common in today’s age. Whether it’s in an office or in a classroom, the use of technological devices like computers play an important role in our lives. Studies have shown that computer mediated communication leads to several negative outcomes such as “depersonalization, impoliteness, information overload, and increased worker stress due to having to respond quickly” (Bob and Sooknanan, 47). When communication is face to face you are able to use your body language or other cues. Mediated communication does not allow you to use these cues but has created a different environment in communication, possibly altering what the media content is communicating.

To be media literate it is important to be able to interpret and analyze media information. If an individual is unable to decipher between what is true and untrue, mediated and non-mediated, then they will have a much more difficult time navigating media effectively. Being media literate is essential for the media consumer and it is important that everyone take notice of their media literacy in the increasing age of information overload.

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