On September 19th, Google Canada announced that it would be investing $500,000 into the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) to fund a media literacy program for students aged 9-19. The CJF is thrilled — the impact of fake news on the 2016 US election combined with the fear that Canadians can’t identify fake news means that teaching media literacy in schools is an important initiative for the CJF to take on.
Media literacy programs will certainly benefit the students who participate; teachers in Ontario, where the majority of the programs will take place, have said that their students don’t have the knowledge needed to identify fake news. But is this high-profile investment a simple philanthropic act? Or does Google have an ulterior motive for investing in media literacy?
Despite claiming to be working on the problem of fake news on its platform, Google hasn’t really made any changes to slow or halt its effect. Just a few couple of weeks ago after the Las Vegas terror attack, several of Google’s “top stories” were far-right 4chan conspiracy threads. So how can a company save face in light of its failing attempts to police fake news? It seems that their latest tactic to deflect negative press is to invest in media literacy programs.
By making this investment in media literacy, Google now has the opportunity to shift the narrative of fake news away from Google’s responsibility to stop it onto media consumers’ responsibility to identify it. Google is subtly sidelining its own complacency in the proliferation of fake news by putting the onus on consumers to stop fake news’ spread and influence. It’s a cheap way to improve the company’s image, too — what’s a $500,000 investment to a corporation that made $90 billion dollars last year?
Google’s isn’t alone. Their investment is one example of a trend in media organizations of promoting media literacy as a method of combating fake news. Facebook recently announced a similar program for students in partnership with Newseum, wherein teachers will have access to online media literacy courses. Like Google’s investment, Facebook’s initiative isn’t a bad thing, as Newseum is able to bring media literacy to hundreds of thousands of American students. But like Google, Facebook is making this partnership to fix their image now that it’s known that their platform allowed fake news to reach more people than ever before.
Google and Facebook’s priorities are wrong. Rather than taking this consumer-focused approach to the problem of fake news, these companies ought to be putting their energy into finding new solutions to moderate and fact-check the content they promote. Media literacy is a band-aid solution to the problem of fake news — a band-aid solution that is only necessary because Google has not been able to effectively stop fake news from proliferating its platform in the first place. We should remain critical of media conglomerates’ attempts to shift blame off themselves and remember who allowed the fake news industry to mislead people on such a wide scale in the first place.