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Media literacy is the only thing standing in the way of the next Andrew Tate

One of the best ways to protect children from online misinformation peddled by bad actors is to teach them media literacy, says Bejay Mulenga of charity The Student View

A Student View workshop. Image: The Student View

Andrew Tate’s rise to fame and subsequent downfall has people discussing how we can stop the rise of content creators and media personalities who spread dangerous misinformation.

It’s an important conversation to have, but Tate is an outlier. Already famous due to his career as a kickboxer, the content creator was de-platformed, but his content still spread through bots and his followers. Banned from social media, he continued to rake in money and increase his influence, prompting the question – does ‘cancel culture’ really work?

He managed to get past “the matrix” as he called it, and spread his misogynistic messages. If social platforms can’t – or won’t – have oversight of people like Tate, it demonstrates how big an issue online safety is – especially for the young and the vulnerable. It’s a slippery slope from Tate’s misogynistic and violent rhetoric about young women, to viewing even more harmful content. A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner for England shows that children as young as nine are being exposed to pornography. 

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Tate is the tip of the iceberg; there are plenty of bad actors peddling dangerous rhetoric on social media that most people won’t even know about. As algorithms are set up to expose users to more and more extreme content, it’s easy for someone to go down a rabbit hole of harmful content.

So with a landscape full of misinformation, how do we expect young people to navigate this rocky terrain? One of the reasons young people are susceptible to misinformation is a lack of media literacy skills. And we know that poor media literacy skills have real-life consequences – for our democracies and for our own day-to-day lives. In June 2018, the National Literacy Trust found only 2 per cent of children have the critical thinking skills needed to tell fact from fiction online. As content creators become slicker, the lines between truth and fiction seem more blurred. How can we expect young people to have a voice and be discerning in what they consume online if they can’t tell when they’re being manipulated?

Some media organisations have started to treat misinformation in the media as an epidemic, and like with the pandemic, the answer is a vaccine to inoculate people against it. That vaccine is media literacy skills; they are integral to online safety. The ability to critically analyse how stories are put together and told in the media, and how to discern their accuracy and reliability – these are skills we need as adults as well, especially as our trust in the media is starting to disintegrate. But media literacy is not part of the English curriculum – yet.

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There are some media agencies going into schools to talk about harmful online behaviour, as well as charities like The Student View, which has a team of journalism coaches who deliver student workshops on media literacy. So far we’ve reached over 2,000 young people – but it’s not enough.

Despite being social natives, and therefore growing up with social media, Gen Z needs to be taught these skills urgently. According to research from The Student View, less than 50 per cent of teachers think their pupils are media literate. How can young people identify harmful content – and report it – if they don’t understand the significance of what they’re consuming?

More and more young people are coming across extreme and harmful content online – and it has a negative effect on their mental health. As there is no age validation needed to set up a social media account, many children and young people are presenting as adults on the internet. Ofcom research estimates that almost half of children aged eight to 15 have a social media profile on at least one platform – most platforms ask for a user age of at least 16, but of course, digital natives know how to mitigate this. 

There is also a huge amount of teacher support for teaching media literacy skills in schools.

A whopping 90 per cent of teachers are in favour of including media literacy on the curriculum to safeguard children against online harms, but they too need support to be up-skilled to deliver this training. Every day, young people are inundating them with questions about things they have seen on social media – it’s hard for teachers to keep up.  

Media literacy is vital for a well-functioning democracy as it ensures citizens can access and critically evaluate messages they receive while navigating the digital world. Right now, the Online Safety Bill has just had its second hearing, and one of the critical things we’ve pushed for is making media literacy part of the curriculum, as well as up-skilling teachers and giving them the support they need. Empowering young people with the skills to navigate misinformation is how we will combat the Andrew Tates of the world.

Bejay Mulenga is executive director of media literacy charity The Student View, which offers free media literacy workshops to schools across the UK. 

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