In the era of algorithms feeding us individualised ‘news’, teaching media literacy might need to take a very different form.
The kids are not alt-right, but boys are more likely to be. That was the conclusion of a US survey highlighted in the new book, Generations, by psychology professor Jean Twenge.
While 17-year-old girls are increasingly identifying as small-L ‘liberal’, their male peers are more likely to identify as conservative. This discovery had right-wing pundits excited, as potential proof that boys are rejecting the lefty mantra that the “future is female”. But that’s not the bigger story here.
The bigger story is that it is becoming easier for boys and girls to inhabit different worlds. These different worlds are shaped by algorithms and offer a (depressingly gendered) version of reality targeted at what they think a boy or girl would or should be interested in. Where past generations have mostly consumed the same media (television, film and radio), this new generation is siloed into vastly different pockets of ‘content’ containing wildly different narratives (scattered across TikTok, YouTube, podcasts).
Unsurprisingly, legacy media is worried. To chase a rapidly vanishing youth audience, the ABC announced a swathe of redundancies in June. The highest profile of these was the experienced and highly regarded national political editor Andrew Probyn. Among the 120 jobs cut, 41 were from the news division, including journalists, editors, camera and sound operators for 7.30, Australian Story, Four Corners and the investigations team.
From now on, the ABC will be “digital first”, shifting its focus to online and streaming products such as iView and ABC Listen. This agenda sees a position such as Probyn’s, dedicated to a nightly news bulletin, as distinctly old fashioned. While new roles will be created, they will be for digital producers, shooters and editors. Basically, young people who understand TikTok.
It is one thing to fall into a rabbit-hole; quite another to grow up inside one.
Behind these spooked changes is another survey, which (according to the Guardian) suggests that ABC TV’s broadcast reach is predicted to trend down from 43% in 2021 to just 31% in 2027. Only four out of 10 Australians currently watch ABC TV on a weekly basis. Within a decade, this will be down to just two out of 10, and most people under 40 won’t be watching TV at all. This follows a Reuters survey from 2022, which showed that social media has become the dominant source of news for 18 to 24-year-olds.
The pandemic seems to have accelerated this change. Between 2020 and 2022, the use of TikTok as a news source increased fivefold. TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are now the main source of news for 66% of young people. All are driven by click-hungry algorithms that tend to show news – or versions of the news – designed to appeal to viewers’ existing tastes, beliefs, and prejudices. The result, as we’ve seen with the gendered ideology gap, is a generation who have been exposed to a narrower range of opinions and a tailored version of reality likely to be at odds with anyone not fed on the same sources.
And it isn’t only the young living in their skewed media silos, of course. The pandemic illustrated how polarised our online worlds have become across the board, with most of us knowing at least one person who has disappeared into a conspiracy rabbit-hole of flat-earthers, plandemics, 5G tin-hatters and 15-minute cities. But it is one thing to fall into a rabbit-hole; it’s quite another thing to grow up inside one. There are kids online today who risk never seeing the sun (both figuratively and literally)!
The ABC’s travails have echoes in the classroom. In a fast-splintering media landscape, our approach to media literacy risks becoming quickly outdated. Teachers have long taught students to interpret news through the prism of bias. The Herald Sun’s reporting of a political issue could be relied upon to have a different slant to the Age’s coverage of the same issue, for example. But these institutions, with their reliable and visible polarities, are being replaced by invisible algorithms, whose biases are tuned to the individual, not to the outlet.
While we wait for the curriculum to catch up, teachers might find that the solution to these media siloes springs from the problem. The ‘global’ has become highly individualised. Instead of asking students to consider the biases of media moguls, new media literacy requires us to ask students to consider their own biases. The question isn’t what the news is trying to tell us, but what the news thinks we want to be told. What beliefs and prejudices do we hold that makes the algorithm serve us this news?
This is the future of media literacy. We read ourselves to detect the biases that build our siloes. If we’re wanting to narrow the ideology gap, gendered or otherwise, the answer may not be to build students’ critical skills but their self-awareness.