By Syerleena Abdul Rashid
The 21st century society is riddled with a range of multifaceted issues, each more unique than the challenges faced by its predecessors. As Malaysians, one of our concerns is brought forth by the ever increasing popularity of media and how easy it is for us to obtain information with a click of a button but with such a simplistic approach of technology, matters of responsible interpretation and how misinformation can easily sway the minds of the most vulnerable becomes an issue of great national concern.
Our modern day Malaysian society cannot doubt the powerful role media has in moulding the mind-sets, behaviours and opinions the people may have over international, domestic and even communal issues. We have experienced how media has been used as a tool to overthrow governments (i.e. Arab Spring), create awareness over various social issues (i.e. Occupy Wall Street, the Bersih movements) but we have also witnessed the sinister roles it can play and how it may be used as an ‘instrument’ to satisfy demented policies of the extremists, the sociopaths and the evils that exist in our society.
In a more recent context, terror organization groups such as IS (Islamic State) has successfully recruited people from across the globe to join in their brand of ‘jihad’ that has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with godless depravity. We have also seen how videos and photos can be edited or ‘photoshopped’ to create distrust or instil conviction within societies or even potential voters. Simple innocent imagery can be turned into a representation of evil; though, while most of us are aware of how disinformation works, there are those who aren’t.
With great ability comes great responsibility
The National Communications Association defines media literacy as the ‘ability to access, enjoy, interpret, analyse, produce, and evaluate messages in all varieties and combinations of print, visual, and digital formats’ (1). Media literacy can empower the youth and encourage them to become positive contributors to society as immeasurable amounts of information are pummelled upon them daily, be it verbally, visually or literarily. Such information can be easily manipulated, distorted and misused, therefore, as a society, it is our responsibility to ensure that our youths will be able to structure a comprehensive sense of ‘reality’ based on whatever information is given to them.
As modern society embraces a multi-tasking, globalised and an intensely interactive world, media literacy should not be just about obtaining the right answers, but also, even more so be about asking the right questions. This brand of education takes on the approach of questioning intentions, motives, identifying both conscious and subconscious information as well as strategies used to convey these messages. It is the ability to separate and analyse all sorts of information by utilizing the skills of critical thought – our ability to ask relevant questions and noticing the underlying or hidden messages. Most of all, it is the ability to instinctively identify the motives behind such information – the values, the targeted audience, the social and political implications and the clandestine economics that motivate such messages.
The profound influence media has on our youths cannot be overlooked or taken lightly. Media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff aptly describes our present youth generation as “screen-agers”, whose worlds are ‘without physical boundaries but consist of instant global network of connections and interconnections’ (2). The term was coined as a response to how the scope of media information is no longer specific but encompasses everything from television to mobile phones. Our youths are completely exposed to all sorts of information which has the power to influence, manipulate and persuade them.
In 2012, the Malaysian Institute for Research in Youth Development under the Ministry of Youth and Sports published a book “Understanding the Anxieties and Desires of Malaysian Youth” and article “Understanding Youth Consumption Patterns” (3) which highlighted the preferred media outlets youth chose to obtain information or news from – a majority of 67.9% chose Internet based news sources such as Internet news websites, blogs and social media websites to obtain information; while 15.1% and 2.7% chose newspapers and magazines respectively; 11.8% favoured television while 2.5% preferred radio. The study further reported that approximately 86.3% of youths owned mobile phones (smart phones), 80.6% owned laptops and tablet PCs, and 40.6% owned personal computers.
Our youths have access to information which can be manipulated and vice versa, in turn, this newfound capability has also begun influencing their daily lives, choices, thoughts and even how they speak. This constantly evolving stream of communal communication has already made impact on Malaysian society. According to a research conducted by the Social Development Council in 2013, statistics showed that Malaysia has approximately 13.3 million Facebook users – 45.5 per cent of the total population in Malaysia; 16.3 per cent comprising of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 years while 34.5 per cent range between the ages of 18 to 24 (4), making it the highest percentage of Facebook users in this country.
Rejection by comprehension VS denial by restriction
Given that Malaysia has the second highest social network penetration in South East Asia and approximately 90% Malaysians have access to the internet, we must have the political will to create a society that is literate enough to understand visual images, able to recognize stereotypes and social clichés; while differentiating fact from half-truths, analytical articulation from hogwash and important news from sensationalized updates.
Such attempts will fail if policy makers do not recognise the importance in promoting media literacy especially to our youth. Although there are several other factors that lead to the deviation from values – poverty, education, unemployment, drug addiction and parental neglect; none can claim greater influence than that of mass media. The BN led Malaysian government imposes an embargo of political and intellectual discourse, which disallows citizens from asking necessary questions needed to understand ‘the bigger picture’.
The recent sedition dragnet reaffirms this fact and hints at the ‘revitalization’ of an almost authoritarian type of control which can and will hinder progress, especially the literacy process. They control the content of our traditional media (BN owned) and disseminates misinformation to lull vulnerable minds into thinking what they see are not fabrications but realities. Ergo, since the public sees them, they must be real and the sources must be trusted but this ‘hard’ approach only provides short term results which may eventually backfire in the long run.
Our youths live in an age where they can no longer separate themselves from the powerful images of pop culture neither can they even begin to imagine pre-internet days nor mobile phones without built in cameras. Past studies have also concluded that negativity such as violence attracts audiences and this negates the positive values needed to spur positive nation building – media simply has the power to make these images or values seem normal and acceptable within a society.
Role of Media Literacy in Curricula
Many countries have already begun to incorporate media literacy into their education system either at primary or secondary levels, while some may provide such subjects as elective classes. For example, the Canadian government has made media literacy a compulsory subject, while countries like Sweden and the U.K. offer them as elective subjects. Ideally, integrating media literacy and education should be introduced as part of our school’s curriculum and must be included as a core issue in any localized youth empowerment program.
The critical study of visual messages, especially subliminal and underlying textual contents are essential and must be emphasized as a core component in promoting media literacy amongst our youth. Additionally, encouraging analytical skills that highlight the expansion of contemporary approaches about the meaning of transmitted messages and how our youth can positively hypothesize or de-construct these messages must be critically encouraged.
As a result, media literate individuals are able to understand visual messages and information by taking on critical and informed methods that allow them to evaluate issues that surround their political, social, and economic scope by assessing their own cultural capacity. Through education can society corporate an astute familiarity of how media companies operate, how governments or organizations may create disinformation and censorship to intensify political propaganda. Above all, it is our responsibility to supply them the necessary knowledge in reinforcing their needed wisdom, to challenge apathy and pessimism and encourage them to serve our nation as advocates of social and political reform.
Listed below are several crucial elements that must be considered when creating a successful media literacy education program:
Identifying that all media is constructed
An essential concept that highlights that the media does not reflect reality but present a carefully crafted reflection – media literacy will work towards deconstructing these ideas
Recognizing fabrication from fact
A majority of our opinions are influenced by personal views but mostly are based on various media messages that we have deciphered either consciously or subconsciously
Interpretation of content
Involves the ability to recall and recognize what has happened and why, while referring to genre/moral codes of conduct and principals or how content may impinge on morality or rationale. Media ownership also is an important factor that can be used to highlight the delivery of content, for example can a patriarchal male dominated fashion industry justly represent the average woman.
Recognizing roles of youth in media
Youths should discuss the varying meanings of information conveyed through personal needs and apprehension, enjoyment or dissatisfaction, racial and gender attitudes, social and political backgrounds and moral perspective
Understanding that messages may contain ideological misinformation or valuable messages
All media contains messages or a sense of declaring acceptable values. Some convey explicit or implicit messages; propaganda or pressing issues; the tolerance of discrimination or respect.
All messages will have social and political implications, one way or another. As media can be use to greatly influence elections, destroy or built an image or even highlight major concerns such as human rights issues, gender equality or religious extremism, the ability to distinguish such messages is also seen as a step in embracing a just and democratic society.
- National Communication Association (1998). K-12 speaking, listening, and media literacy standards and competency statements. Washington, D.C.: National Communication Association.
- “Playing the future: How kids’ culture can teach us to thrive in an age of chaos” (1996) by Douglas Rushkoff, HarperCollins: New York
- “Understanding the Anxieties and Desires of Malaysian Youth” & “Understanding Youth Consumption Patterns” (2012) by the Malaysian Institute for Research in Youth Development under the Ministry of Youth and Sports
- “13.3 million M’sians are Facebook users” (June 16, 2013) by Norni Mahadi, The Borneo Post (http://www.theborneopost.com/2013/06/16/13-3-million-msians-are-facebook-users/#ixzz3EaFAnnog)