How denialists weaponize media literacy and what to do about it

danah boyd's SXSW Edu keynote, What Hath We Wrought? builds on her essay from 2017 about the relationship of media literacy education to the rise of conspiracy theories and the great epistemological rift in which significant numbers of people believe things that are clearly untrue, from climate denial to flat-earthing.

boyd suggests that media literacy's emphasis on considering the social context of news prepared the way for denialism. The message of media literacy educators is that the motives of a speaker should be considered when evaluating the speaker's claims — and the message of denialists is that climate change scientists only get paid if they're right; doctors are financially interested in vaccinating your kids; George Soros is paying #blacklivesmatter protesters, etc — denialism weaponizes the methods of media literacy.

boyd worries that "google it" is being proposed as the answer to "fake news" — search engines are gameable, and digging for depth about extraordinary claims might well turn up hermetically sealed denial-bubbles of people who are painstakingly making the case that their delusions are truthful.

boyd closes with policy prescriptions: focus on contradictions in claims, not motives. Cultivate the "cognitive strength" to empathize and understand toxic worldviews without being swayed by them.

Empathy is a powerful emotion, one that most educators want to encourage. But when you start to empathize with worldviews that are toxic, it's very hard to stay grounded. It requires deep cognitive strength. Scholars who spend a lot of time trying to understand dangerous worldviews work hard to keep their emotional distance. One very basic tactic is to separate the different signals. Just read the text rather than consume the multimedia presentation of that. Narrow the scope. Actively taking things out of context can be helpful for analysis precisely because it creates a cognitive disconnect. This is the opposite of how most people encourage everyday analysis of media, where the goal is to appreciate the context first. Of course, the trick here is wanting to keep that emotional distance. Most people aren't looking for that.

I also believe that it's important to help students truly appreciate epistemological differences. In other words, why do people from different worldviews interpret the same piece of content differently? Rather than thinking about the intention behind the production, let's analyze the contradictions in the interpretation. This requires developing a strong sense of how others think and where the differences in perspective lie. From an educational point of view, this means building the capacity to truly hear and embrace someone else's perspective and teaching people to understand another's view while also holding their view firm. It's hard work, an extension of empathy into a practice that is common among ethnographers. It's also a skill that is honed in many debate clubs. The goal is to understand the multiple ways of making sense of the world and use that to interpret media. Of course, appreciating the view of someone who is deeply toxic isn't always psychologically stabilizing.

You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? [danah boyd/Data & Society]