Why libraries should promote media literacy to counter hate speech


Promoting media literacy is a vital task, albeit a challenging one.

The challenge seems especially daunting when you consider the speed at which disinformation and online hate speech can proliferate in the digital age. The ways we access and process information are continually evolving, which makes media literacy education more important than ever.

As Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) puts it:

Today, information is ubiquitous, and can travel instantly around the world. Today, anyone can create and distribute content, expressing themselves in ways they never could before. In some cases, this has created an overflow of information – both online and offline –where it is increasingly difficult for citizens to know what to believe and who to trust, creating potentially devastating implications for democracy, sustainable development, and peace.

See also:

Hate speech is a threat to democracy

Knowledge is power, and using that power to counter hate speech can help build more informed and inclusive communities. 

While various institutions support this endeavor, libraries are pivotal hubs fostering critical thinking, empowering individuals and bridging societal divides. 

Let's explore the role of librarians in media literacy promotion, highlighting their unique capabilities in combating hate speech and forging a more tolerant and equitable society.

We live in a world where the lines between fact and fiction are easily blurred, making it challenging for individuals to discern reliable sources of information amid the flood of media messages we encounter each day. 

Hate speech, misinformation and online radicalization are more prevalent than ever, posing severe threats to societal harmony and democratic values. 

A Pew Research Center survey shows that more than 60% of Americans believe that fake news has caused "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of confusion about current events. This is alarming and it underlines the necessity of equipping individuals with media literacy skills to navigate the overwhelming ocean of information.


Libraries have a key role to play

For decades, libraries have been champions of equal access to information. 

By providing free and open access to a wide range of resources, including books, newspapers, magazines, databases, internet access and digital news platforms like PressReader, libraries have empowered individuals from a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds to become critical media consumers. 

According to the American Library Association (ALA), 96% of public libraries in the United States provide free public internet access, narrowing the digital divide and enabling individuals to explore diverse perspectives.

Through effective partnerships with media organizations, many libraries have conducted training sessions on fact-checking, source evaluation, and critical-thinking skills. 

Take the Media Literacy @ Your Library initiative, for instance. Supported by the ALA, it has trained a number of librarians in delivering media and information literacy training to communities nationwide.

Understanding the echo chamber

The echo chamber phenomenon refers to the tendency of individuals to surround themselves with like-minded people and consume media messages that confirm their existing beliefs. 

Social media platforms and online communities often exacerbate this effect by tailoring content based on users' preferences and reinforcing pre-existing biases. This, in turn, creates a distorted reality where individuals are less likely to encounter alternative viewpoints or engage in constructive dialogue. 

The resulting polarization poses significant challenges to societal cohesion, and it can leave the door open for those who wish to propagate hate speech.


A platform for diverse points of view

Ideally, libraries house books espousing a wide variety of viewpoints. Books written by Karl Marx sit peacefully alongside the works of Friedrich Hayek. A person who might come to read Marx's Communist Manifesto might stumble upon Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

The result? Instead of rejecting one ideology and embracing another based on inflammatory, agenda-driven blog posts, the reader can explore the authors' ideas and judge them on their own merits — warts and all. When introduced to materials that challenge their beliefs and biases, people tend to be less rigid in their thinking. 

Libraries provide safe and inclusive spaces where individuals from diverse backgrounds can come together to learn, exchange ideas, and engage in constructive dialogues. 

Librarians can do their part by taking a proactive role in organizing community events, book clubs, and panel discussions designed to raise awareness of — and promote respectful conversations about — sensitive topics, fostering mutual understanding and empathy. 

By cultivating an environment of openness and respect, libraries actively combat hate speech and create functional spaces for constructive engagement.

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Challenging the gatekeepers

On the internet, the algorithms that serve as information gatekeepers can be gamed so that only certain ideas surface prominently over other types. The situation becomes more complex when someone using a search engine remains logged in. The search engine algorithm considers the person’s previous searches and shows her information that's closely related to the theme of those searches. As a result, the person can get trapped in what Eli Pariser dubbed a “filter bubble”.

In the case of libraries, the librarian acts as the gatekeeper. Unfortunately, a very vocal and reactionary minority has been determined to usurp that role, turning the public library into an ideological battleground.

In March of this year, the American Library Association released data documenting 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022. According to the ALA, last year saw the highest number of attempted book bans in the US since the organization began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.

According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, these challenges represent an attempt to erase certain voices from civic life:

A book challenge is a demand to remove a book from a library’s collection so that no one else can read it. Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media. Their aim is to suppress the voices of those traditionally excluded from our nation’s conversations, such as people in the LGBTQIA+ community or people of color.


Democratizing access to information

One of the traditional roles of the public library is to democratize access to information. Now, in the digital age, a world of information is readily available to be consumed by all.

There is, however, a severe trust deficit when it comes to accessing information from the online world. It's all too easy to click on deliberately misleading material masquerading as news, and just as easy to amplify the misinformation via a social media platform. On the internet, fake news can carry the seeds of hate speech far and wide.

Fortunately, library professionals can play an active part in helping their patrons develop the skills necessary to discern spurious news pieces from genuine ones. 

By promoting media and information literacy, libraries empower individuals to critically evaluate media messages, challenge biases, and counter hate speech. In essence, they contribute to forming a more tolerant and equitable society.


Here's what libraries can do

To strengthen their role in promoting media literacy and countering hate speech, libraries can undertake several key initiatives:

  • Collaboration with educational institutions: Libraries can forge partnerships with teachers at schools and postsecondary institutions to integrate media literacy programs into the curriculum. Working together, they can ensure that students receive consistent and comprehensive education on critical thinking, source evaluation and responsible media consumption.

  • Engaging with community organizations: Collaborating with community organizations, nonprofits and advocacy groups can help libraries develop tailored programs to address specific needs and challenges within the community. By understanding the local context and collaborating with stakeholders, libraries can effectively target hate speech and promote inclusive dialogue.

  • Empowering librarians: Libraries should invest in training librarians to equip them with the skills to teach media literacy effectively. That way, they can engage with patrons in constructive conversations about the media landscape.

  • Utilizing technology: Libraries can leverage technology to enhance media literacy efforts. Options are plenty, ranging from online resources, curated lists of reliable sources and fact-checking tools. Further, libraries could collaborate with tech companies and platforms to promote responsible content creation and consumption, encouraging the development of tools to facilitate media literacy education.

  • Collaboration with media organizations: Libraries can partner with media organizations to promote media literacy and responsible journalism. By hosting workshops and panel discussions featuring journalists, editors and other media professionals, libraries can provide insights into the media industry and foster dialogue between media creators and consumers. Such collaborations can help libraries stay updated on the latest media trends and challenges.

  • Evaluation and research: By evaluating the outcomes of media literacy programs, libraries can refine their approaches and develop evidence-based strategies for countering hate speech and fostering inclusive communities. Sharing research findings and best practices can also contribute to addressing the challenges of misinformation and hate speech.

Undeniably, libraries empower and engage individuals by giving them access to information and education, and providing them with safe spaces.

In doing so, they also challenge biases, foster understanding and counter hate speech. With effective partnerships, the right technology and properly trained staff, libraries can make a real difference.

Let us know what your library is doing to foster media literacy skills in your community, and learn more about PressReader for libraries.

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