While digital poverty mainly focuses on lack of access to online services and devices, expanding media literacy – the ability to make use of digital services safely and effectively – is integral to broadening digital inclusion. Definitions of both digital literacy and media literacy often focus almost entirely on mastery and the ability to use digital devices and services. However, the Digital Poverty Alliance considers the capacity to apply critical thinking when making use of online services to be a central tenet of media literacy – one which is too often overlooked, but sits within our National Delivery Plan, Mission 3. Media Literacy skills help users to make use of their own judgement when accessing online platforms, so they can enjoy these sites’ benefits while protecting themselves against the dangers of an online world which is increasingly home to the proliferation of fake news and upsetting content.

In December, Digital Poverty Alliance responded to Ofcom’s Making Sense of Media consultation, to call for online services to provide resources to customers which improve their online safety and digital literacy. In their introductory documentation for the consultation, Ofcom define media literacy as “the ability to use, understand and create media and communications in a variety of contexts”. While this definition is accurate, it encapsulates how discussions surrounding media literacy too often fail to dive deeper into what the capacity to ‘use’ and ‘understand’ media really means – and that this will vary drastically between age groups, media platforms and even the devices being used. As we articulated in our consultation response, Ofcom’s comments on how “platforms have an important role to play in increasing users’ media literacy” need to consider how this role may vary between different age brackets. For example, young people may need more support to detect fake news and protect themselves from harmful online content.

All too often, online media platforms fail to accept responsibility for user safety. The DPA’s response to Ofcom’s survey sought to highlight the urgent need for online platforms to take a more active role in educating and protecting their users from online dangers. While Ofcom asserts the review is ‘separate’ although ‘complimentary’ to online safety regimes, the DPA believes the two should be discussed in tandem to ensure media literacy by design has online safety built in as a central foundation.

We called for a more centralised approach to establishing best practice principles and ensuring these are adequately monitored and evaluated. While it is essential that services consider media literacy as part of their KPIs or OKRs, this alone is not adequate. Media literacy policies, Performance Indicators and Objectives need a consistent approach. Allowing companies to set different measures makes it difficult for these to be compared and assessed in terms of efficacy and impact. We pointed out that Universal Performance Indicators and Objectives would help to compare companies’ efforts and set universal and regulatable policy standards. Additionally, the DPA called for more consistent methods for users and third parties to raise concerns and complaints about companies which fail to implement best practice principles. Current policies allow social media platforms to dictate and implement their own standards, making it difficult or near impossible to hold them to account for failures to protect or educate their users. Centralising policy and providing clear consequences for those who fail to implement these policies would help ensure users are kept safe and help monitor and alter Media Literacy Policies as digital tools and technologies change and develop over the next decade.

Ofcom are currently assessing the consultation responses.  Media literacy by design holds so many opportunities to increase confidence and trust in online services for adults and children alike, and we look forward to seeing the policy changes that result from this work.

Written by Cassia Jefferson, Volunteer Fundraising Assistant at the Digital Poverty Alliance