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Media Literacy and the run up to the European Elections

The 2024 elections present unprecedented challenges due to the huge amount of information, prompting calls for campaigns to educate voters

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Sally REYNOLDS
Community Contributor (Bronze Member).
media literacy

Very few people need reminding that 2024 is a massive year in terms of elections, with TIME Magazine estimating that more voters than ever before in history will head to the polls in at least 64 countries as well as the European Union. This unprecedented state of affairs means that the democratic process will be tested at its very core and many people fear that the dangers of mis and disinformation could have significant impact on the way in which elections take place, affecting not only the results but also the very nature of how people view the integrity of the election process. This fear has led to a call for campaigns to guide potential voters in making their way through the veritable avalanche of information about the election process, those putting themselves forward for election, their campaigns and the issues and standpoints on which they promote themselves. When it comes to the European Parliament elections, even more voters will be going to the polls for the first time given the decision by several EU member states to lower the voting age in the European Parliament elections to 16 or 17, which means that the call to help young people prepare for the elections is even more relevant this time round for the education sector.

Citizenship Education and Political Literacy

Here in Europe, we see several different terms used for the skills that people need when it comes to their active engagement in the election process. For many, the term that is most used is Citizenship Education. There have been lots of initiatives launched in this area with related resources and activities. EAEA has already recognised Citizenship Education as an important topic in their background paper on the topic in 2019 in which they state ‘adult education has a fundamental role for active citizenship, through the development of citizenship education, by providing space and opportunities to create a sense of individual and common responsibility, fostering civic engagement, tackling social exclusion and developing critical thinking’. While national agencies involved in adult education such as Aontas in Ireland actively promote initiatives supporting global citizenship education. 

Another term often used is Political Literacy where the focus is more on understanding how the democratic political system works and the role of citizens in this process. ShoutOutUK is a good example of an organisation that works specifically on this idea of political literacy with the work they do through education in ensuring citizens understand how their government functions and whereby young people are given a chance to have a say in how their country is run through their own youth voice platform and various programmes. In the same vein, the EDUmake project supported under the European Commission’s Creative Europe Programme recently published EDUbox Politics with the same objective of helping young people understand the democratic process better, with two related resources EDUbox Ideology and EDUbox Persuasion.

The role of Media Literacy – and its challenges

Given the importance of both traditional and social media in all aspects of the democratic election process, it will come as no surprise that there have been many calls for Media Literacy practitioners to play a role in helping citizens prepare more critically for elections. By focusing on helping citizens take a more critical view of the media messages with which they are bombarded on a daily basis leading up to the elections, it is clear that effective media literacy campaigns can play a role in off-setting some of the potentially damaging information shared by those who involve themselves in the election process by seeking to persuade potential voters in one direction or another. 

But the challenges faced by anyone aiming to carry out a successful media literacy campaign of any sort in the run up to elections are many. 

Trust: the backlash of pre-bunking 

First and foremost comes the issue of trust. For a media literacy campaign to be successful, it needs to steer clear of making those for whom it is intended distrust all media. This is one of the dangers often associated with the commonly promoted technique of pre-bunking used as a means to build resilience to mis and disinformation by exposing people in advance to the different techniques used by those wishing to mislead. In this way, those targeted are made aware of the strategies that can be used and, according to the proponents of this approach, people are therefore better prepared to resist disinformation. However, several practitioners argue that if the end result of such a technique is to lessen people’s trust in all types of media, then the advantages of pre-bunking can be questionable. 

The impact of media literacy - let's be realistic

A second challenge relates to the issue of depth and reach of such media literacy campaigns. Most media literacy experts agree that enhancing the necessary critical skills to become truly media literate is a lifelong learning process, which ideally starts as soon as a child begins to be aware of media and continues at all stages of our lives according as the media landscape evolves. This means that we need to be realistic about the impact of any media literacy campaign launched in the context of elections and endeavour to put it in the context of ongoing and more in-depth media literacy campaigns taking place either by involving media literacy practitioners who are already engaged in this work or by linking directly to resources, communities and services that are well established with proven expertise. 

Finding the right tone

Thirdly, the tone in which such campaigns are delivered needs to be carefully considered. Not only does this mean avoiding telling people they are wrong in any way, but also in finding a style of delivery, even with short and highly targeted messages, that avoids being in any way patronising. 

Finding a balance in content

A further challenge relates to the content of such campaigns. It is not the job of those promoting media literacy in the run-up to any sort of election, to either use such campaigns to encourage people to vote or to promote channels used by the organs of the state in promoting the elections. Not only is this because promoting voting rights is best carried out by those directly engaged in the management and delivery of democratic elections, but also because those responsible for state-controlled communication channels do not always act with integrity or in the interests of all citizens in the messages and information that they share. Furthermore, media literacy campaigns need to be localised as much as possible both in terms of the language of delivery and the concerns and norms of the audience at which they are targeted. 

Catching up with new disinformation trends

Finally, those launching media literacy campaigns at this time have to contend with an ever-changing technical landscape which makes it increasingly difficult to predict the kinds of disinformation that will emerge in the run-up to the elections which brings its own challenges. Chief of these at the current time relates to the use of AI and the increasing proliferation of Deepfakes which make it more difficult to know what types of disinformation campaigns are coming our way in the coming months. 

The #BeElectionSmart campaign

The EDMOeu community of Digital Media Literacy practitioners located in the 14 EDMO hubs covering all 27 member states, has decided to launch a 6-week campaign in the run up to the European Parliament elections in June. The designers of this campaign called #BeElectionSmart are very mindful of the challenges they face and are working hard to find the most effective way to deliver this campaign.  #BeElectionSmart is firmly anchored in our belief that citizens need to build their own critical competence when it comes to understanding the effect media is having on their beliefs and subsequent actions related to the elections. 

This campaign will be linked to the resources and tools made available within the EDMO community to fact-check news and information. It will be informed on a weekly basis by the narratives identified by the EDMO Taskforce on EU Elections ensuring it is as up-to-date as possible and meets the specific national and regional concerns of the target groups. It will be translated, localised and promoted by organisations in the 14 EDMO hubs spread across all Members States who are already active in the media literacy sphere by providing training, resources and tools to help citizens of all ages build up their media literacy skills and competences. 

In this way, the EDMOeu team promoting and supporting this campaign hope that it will play an important role in helping the 2024 European Elections better serve the democratic objectives of all EU citizens. 

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