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Media Literacy Is Needed Now More Than Ever: Here’s Why

Recent statistics revealed that Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission received a total of 20,805 complaints on new media content across the year of 2020. A whopping 99.5% increase as compared to 2019 (10,426 cases). Among them, cases of false statements experienced a 117.6% increase in a period which coincides with the pandemic[1]

In August 2021, the Prime Minister’s Department reported that fake news and misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines were influencing people to forgo their vaccine appointments, resulting in wasted supplies[2]

Across the period of March 2020 to September 2021, the fact-checking portal published a total of 486 rebuttals to fake or unverified news. 43.83% of which are related to COVID-19 and vaccine information, according to Datuk Zahidi Zainal Abidin, Deputy Minister of Communications and Multimedia[3].

Source: News Strait Times

The damage is more substantial as police statistics showed that Malaysians suffered a loss of RM2.23 billion from cybercrimes. A total of 67,552 cases were reported between 2017 and June 2021. These cases include e-commerce scams, illegal loans, and investment scams affecting careless media consumers[4].

Information Meltdown

Beyond traditional mainstream media (television and newspapers), new media (social media, messaging apps and video sharing platforms) have taken the internet by storm and infiltrated phone screens in a pervasive and loosely regulated ecosystem.

Malaysia saw an increase in household internet access, from 87% in 2018 to 90.1% in 2019, with almost 100% access to mobile phones.[5]

Social media plays an undeniable role in the distribution of time-sensitive information like MCO announcements, latest distancing SOPs, and vaccination distribution to the general masses.

Source: Free Malaysia Today

However, the free flow of information also means the intrusion of misinformation. Most of us are no strangers to the panic of receiving a suspicious link from friends or family on WhatsApp, making conspiratorial claims with dubious sources. Fake news and rumours easily stir public opinions and sometimes cause substantial harm.

All media share one thing in common: someone created it and it was created for a reason. The ability to identify different types of media and interpret their messages forms the basis of media literacy[6].

Media Literacy in Malaysia

The Centre of Independent Journalism (CIJ) conducts annual surveys to understand the pattern of media consumption among Malaysian youths. The survey, conducted between June 2015 to October 2019, involved 305 participants in online questionnaires, and 44 participants in focus group discussion. 

78% of participants perceived that social media offers more freedom of information, while also highlighting that digital information may not be reliable and prone to the influence of interested parties and stakeholders.[7]

Despite this, 55% of youth have the habit of sharing information as it is, while only 1 in 10 took the effort to edit before sharing[7].

A media literacy survey was conducted with 1200 students aged 16 from urban and rural secondary schools across Malaysia. Through self-assessment questionnaires, students rated themselves moderately competent in navigating 10 key domains of digital media literacy, which include information, social, critical understanding, safety, and regulation[8]

Source: Pexels

Similarly, when 130 university students were asked to self-report their level of new media literacy (internet, video games, mobile phone), 61.7% of students fell in the medium level. It is no surprise that students with more frequent media use showed greater competency in designing content that reflects critical thinking[9]

Allowing youths to learn media literacy skills through a laissez-faire exposure is akin to expecting them to learn how to swim by pushing them down the sea, hoping they will figure it out themselves. A proper framework is needed to guide them through this sea of false information.

Digital media literacy skills are not assessed in comprehensive ways because they are not taught in broader contexts in Malaysian schools which encompass the cognitive,  technical and ethical dimensions of 21st century learning. – Ambigapathy Pandian et al, from the paper Reading the 21st Century World: Self-Assessment of Digital Media Literacy Among Secondary School Students in Malaysia[8].

Media Education For All

Noticing this gap, the social enterprise Arus Academy set up ‘Media Education For All (ME4A)’ a movement comprised of educators and media practitioners to bring media and information literacy to all. The program hopes to empower youths to be media users who are critical, discerning and assertive. 

Source: ME4A

The first phase of the program recruited 15 Malaysian educators from different states, covering both private and public schools. Together with 12 media professionals, they developed the Media Education Academy (MEA), which is a free online course in media literacy[10].

I joined this initiative because I realised that many parents are sharing fake news through WhatsApp and Telegram. This became alarming especially when the Movement Control Order (MCO) began. We don’t have the time and skill to counter this kind of fake news. – Hazwan Bin Hamdan, an English teacher from a religious school in Perak[10].

Since the launch in September 2021, a total of 1,700 educators have enrolled in the program. At the same time, ME4A also launched the MEA Challenge for educators to create teaching aids to incorporate media literacy into their day-to-day lessons.

As we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, misinformation can be deadly. It can cause chaos and allow social injustice to thrive. That’s why the MEA is so important — we need to equip our children with media literacy skills so they can put an end to misinformation in the years ahead, and one of the best ways to achieve that is through our teachers. – Ian Yee, former editor of R.AGE media, the award-winning investigative journal from Star Group Media[11].

Source: The Star

Apart from taking part in MEA, media literacy can and must be cultivated among the masses. Here are some simple ways to improve your media literacy:

#1: Verify Sources

Ascertain if the information is from a credible source like a news agency or government portal. If the information is presented in a forwarded whatsapp text or email with no citable source, highlight the keywords for a Google search to retrace its origin. 

Often, we might fall prey to the illusion of authority when the message includes a citation from an expert or researcher from well-known organistions or institutions. Don’t be quick to assume that it is real news as names can be used misused to mislead people. Uphold the habit of verifying the source to ensure that the same information has been covered in other new or media outlets.

#2: Opposite Query

When using search engines, one must be careful of confirmation bias. The algorithm will return the most relevant information based on the input query you provided. A flat-earther will get results that support his or her claim when they search “is the earth is flat?”. 

To avoid the confirmation bias trap, consider doing an opposite query. Instead of searching for “is the earth is flat it?”, try searching for its opposite “is the earth round?” or state the opposite in your search – “the earth is NOT flat”. This practice will expose the reader to alternative perspectives of a given issue, to help paint the whole truth.

#3: Reverse Image Search

We consume information most effectively through visual aid. While a picture is worth a thousand words, it can also be worth a thousand lies. Simply do a reverse image search with Google Image

Copy and paste the image onto the search bar, and Google will fetch images with similar digital prints. From the result, try to look for the source of the image where the author is properly credited. The image you see could be a portion of a cropped picture or digitally rendered to fit the sender’s narration.

#4: Fact Check The Website

Fact-checking websites work by debunking rumours and fake news with independent research. In Malaysia, we have curated by Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and Fake or Not by Free Malaysia Today, and Faqcheck Lab by a group of collaborating local universities.

The Ministry of Communications and Multimedia set up a Rapid Response Team (PRP) comprising skilled officers from the ministry and the National Security Council (NSC) to quicken the response time to combat pandemic-related fake news[2].

Explore Our Sources:

  1. Mohd Uzir Mahdin. (2021). Crime Statistics Publication, 2021. Department of Statistics Malaysia. Link.
  2. Lee, S. (2021). Covid-19: Fake news, rumours, making people skip vaccine appointments, says Ongkili. The Star. Link.
  3. Bernama. (2021). Anti-fake news portal records 260% increase in number of visits during pandemic. The Star. Link.
  4. Mohamed Basyir. (2021). Malaysians suffered RM2.23 billion losses from cyber-crime frauds. New Straits Times. Link
  5. FMT. (2020). 90% internet access in Malaysia. Free Malaysia Today. Link.
  6. Common Sense Media. What is media literacy, and why is it important? Common Sense Media. Link.
  7. The Centre for Independent Journalism. (2021). Information Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) Report: Youths, Nationwide Malaysia. CIJ Malaysia. Link
  8. Pandian, A., Baboo, S.B., & Lim, J.Yi. (2020). Reading the 21st Century World: Self-Assessment of Digital Media Literacy among Secondary School Students in Malaysia. International Journal of Asian Social Science. Link
  9. Chin, Y.S. & Hamsah Zainuddin. (2019). New Media Literacy And Media Use Among University Students In Malaysia. International Journal of Engineering and Advanced Technology. Link
  10. Tan, Z.Y.  (2021). Education: Arming teachers with media literacy tools. The Edge Markets. Link.
  11. Palansamy, Y. (2021). Over 1,200 academics join media literacy programme to fight misinformation, fake news. Malay Mail. Link.

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