About 20 years ago, I saw the movie The Matrix. At the time, I was blown away by the ground-breaking visual effects. It was entertaining and thought-provoking, but I didn't overthink it. Years later, while I was in college, I took a closer look at some of the movie's thematic elements: existentialism, destiny, psychological conditioning, free will. As a Communication major, I studied the film for its deeper meaning, which is where Media Literacy comes in. Because, at its core, the underlying metaphor for The Matrix is akin to the paradox between theological determinism and existentialism. In my opinion, the tools of a solid Media Literacy (ML) program empower us for a similar journey.
In marketing, the claim is that every positive brand impression moves the target audience through various stages of a conversion funnel—awareness, interest, desire, etc.
In entertainment, the claim is that violent content consumption won't result in violent behavior.
For both answers above, the claim is difficult to prove. How does one prove that the consumption of an idea will lead to consumer—or physical—behavior? Clearly, both the marketing and entertainment industry have biased, if not self-serving, claims
While the definition may vary, I feel confident in stating that it is a process, an analysis, that involves asking questions about a specific topic.
Media Literacy isn't a new concept, but it isn't a mature one either. It's become more of a thing with the rise of the Internet and our media-saturated lives. Still, there's no consensus as to what to include in a comprehensive ML program.
Fundamentally, these programs help us think critically about our media influences.
A solid Media Literacy program considers numerous aspects of the communication process and includes components about the industry.
Here is a quick list of some Media Literacy subtopics:
All of these elements are worth including, but I argue that an effective program must cross professional disciplines into psychology, sociology, neuroscience, philosophy, and more.
Media Literacy programs need to include components of psychology, philosophy, and sociology because we are in part critiquing ourselves.
The four basic components of the communication model are the following:
We are the Message Recipient, and we can't exclude ourselves from understanding how communication and influence works.
With Media Literacy, the objective is to empower the Message Recipient with a set of skills that will help them weigh the merit of their influencing medium(s). The question becomes, how can we as Message Recipients objectively analyze content for legitimacy, honesty, and validity when our personal experiences and ideological beliefs bias us?
In an uncivilized world, our instinct compels us to conform to social standards for our own progress and the survival of the "tribe." In contrast, advanced societies cultivate the concept of personal liberty and encourage individuals to follow their own path. In both settings, the media we consume defines our reality.
To investigate anything critically, we need to make an honest attempt to be objective, as though we are analyzing the subject from a bird's eye view. I argue that a solid Media Literacy program has to begin with an honest assessment of the Message Recipient—ourselves.
What is my cultural background?
What are my political leanings?
What is my spiritual ideology?
What is my income level?
Where did I grow up?
What was my family life like as a child?
Your answers to these personal questions and many more give you a unique perspective on life, but they also create biases and heuristics in your cognitive processes. Your matrix of ideas can either be philosophically empowering or too rigid for an enlightened journey.
Reputable Media Literacy programs don't suggest that some ideologies are legitimate while others are nonsense; they advocate for ideological tolerance—pointing out that everyone's perspective is constructed of their unique experiences.
You'll get more out of a Media Literacy program when you use it as an internal, reflective tool, not simply a set of skills for deconstructing others.
Many aspects can be investigated within the four components of the communication model.
Collectively, Media Literacy and Critical Thinking skills help us analyze the media we consume, but we can use them to understand ourselves too. This latter part—"Know Thyself"—is where the difficulty lies; because, in some cases, the process of weighing the merit of the media we choose to consume (and the history we choose to believe) may challenge the origin of some of our most cherished ideas and experiences.
There are some excellent Media Literacy programs available; but, my approach is unique. With my "Chameleon" channels, I explore topics that I feel are relevant for Media Literacy, but I call out where each one fits in the communication model.
CMMR — "Challenge My Medium Reaction"
Ultimately, I am sharing what I know as a communication strategist, but I'm also documenting my journey between determinism and self-awareness.
In my opinion, a comprehensive Media Literacy program should "steal" from philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, and more. This approach is potentially problematic because it crosses disciplines; because exploring Media Literacy exclusively from one field (psychology or digital marketing) doesn't go far enough. The journey needs to be a synthesis. I cross into these adjacent disciplines because I know they are relevant. I invite professionals in these related fields to comment, follow, call me out on my errors, or even collaborate with me.
Modern media platforms enable all of us to be Message Creators and potentially influence millions of people. These tools can be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes—as detailed in my book The Chameleon. In most cases, these efforts are harmless distractions but they can be manipulative, exploitive, or oppressive.
Not everyone using new media tools is guided by ethical responsibility and ideological tolerance. Their practices can disempower certain communities or destabilize the cohesiveness of society. Sometimes, this type of communication is delivered completely by accident, where both the Message Creator and the Message Recipient are unaware of how their participation impacts their community. Other times, the social division is by design.
I firmly believe that education, not censorship, is the cornerstone of advanced Democratic societies. With Freedom of Speech comes the social obligation of educating our children about how they are being influenced, educated, indoctrinated, entertained, or even manipulated.
Whether you seek to empower yourself by existentialist practice or theological worship, modern media platforms can be distracting. Media Literacy will give you the skills to help you focus on your journey. And this is where I refer back to The Matrix.