Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy, published a report last month titled “Building Resiliency: Media Literacy as a Strategic Defense Strategy for the Transatlantic.” It reads like a blueprint to indoctrinate students in corporatism and militarism under the guise of media literacy education. Jolls received a Fulbright-NATO Security Studies Award to study “aspects of the current information ecosystem and the state of media literacy in NATO countries.”
Let’s offer some historical context: NATO during the Cold War and has long since outlived its original stated purpose of combating the spread of communism. Political sociologist Peter Phillips, for example, has argued that NATO has turned into a global army that engages in dubious conflicts and human rights abuses in an effort to serve the “transnational capitalist class”.
As with the crisis created by the manipulated term “fake news,” media literacy is being weaponized by organizations and individuals seeking to increase their power by influencing the public’s perception of reality. For example, Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist for Donald Trump, has a long history of spreading false information. From 2012 to 2018, he was the executive chairman of the site Breitbart News, which has manipulated videos, fabricated stories and spread baseless conspiracy theories. Beginning with Bannon’s tenure, Breitbart published articles extolling “media literacy” as a way to combat “fake news,” and proclaimed that the site’s late founder, Andrew Breitbart, integrated media literacy into the platform. But what Breitbart means by the term—especially given the site’s track record—seems to run counter to traditional definitions of media literacy.
The standard definition of media literacy used in American education is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” In response to the post-2016 panic over fake news, there was a demand for more media literacy in schools. This provided a window of opportunity for major media companies—which had long sought to enter the classroom to market their products and collect student data—to quickly move toward indoctrinating students with corporate propaganda under the umbrella of “media literacy.”
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Joll’s report only serves to bolster such efforts, arguing that corporate “allocations for media literacy training are few and far between.” It also appeals directly to the military-industrial complex—meaning the alliance between the military and related defense and national security industries—by calling for “funding and programming from all corners: government, foundations, and the private sector (tech and media companies, other businesses). ” Most Big Tech companies came out of the military industrial complex and continue to serve their interest in many ways.
Rather than advocating one critical standard for media literacy training, one that would account for the power dynamics invested in NATO and its long history of working towards democracy and social justice, Jolls praises the “values that NATO states” represent, saying they represent an “excellent foundation” for ” media literacy initiative.” Indeed, to normalize NATO values in education, Jolls proposes what amounts to a psychological operations campaign, or psy-op, to spread NATO’s version of media literacy to the public through “mass media, media aggregators like AP, Reuters and LexisNexis, social media and influencers.” The report urges NATO to “nurture grassroots efforts”, which sounds more like astroturfing.
The same military and intelligence communities that now demand “media literacy” have been producing and spreading fake news, at home and abroad, for at least 70 years.
Joll’s report ignores that members of the same military and intelligence services she praises have produced and spread fake news to American citizens, from the time of Operation Mockingbird in the mid-20th century to the present on various social media platforms. Nor does she ever discuss public efforts to weaken the military-industrial complex’s ability to dictate the truth. Earlier this year, for example, critics from both left and the right lobbied successfully to have the Department of Homeland Security scrap its disinformation board, which was entirely reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984.”
Instead, Jolls appears to be following the lead of similar dubious media literacy projects from the military-industrial complex, such as the NewsGuard browser extension. Described as an “Internet Trust Tool” and positioned as an objective tool for educators, NewsGuard has an advisory board loaded with military veterans and former intelligence officers. Its rating system has a clear ideological bias: NewsGuard consistently promotes established and legacy media sources that reflect a narrow range of status-quo views – even when they have been shown to spread false information – and downgrades independent and alternative media that challenge institutions of government, industry and military. Reflecting NewsGuard’s top-down approach to media literacy training, Jolls urges NATO leaders to determine the “intent and objectives of media literacy interventions” by selecting the “social problem or behavior or ideology” or issue on which trainers should focus.
It is certainly true that we need a critical media literacy curriculum in the US – but that is not what Jolls and NewsGuard are promoting. Real media literacy education empowers students to be autonomous and sophisticated media users, asking their own questions about who controls media messages and interrogating the power structures behind them. When a student is left dependent on the military-industrial complex to analyze content for them, that is not education. It is indoctrination.
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