Critical media literacy and digital ethics
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Critical media literacy and digital ethics

Photo: durantelallera


Wikileaks and false news; an American Presidency run via Twitter; Charlie Hebdo; hackers manipulating elections, stealing corporate secrets and shutting down public utilities; mass surveillance via the internet of things; 24/7 news, information and disinformation cycles broadcast continuously on public and personal screens; wall-to-wall cultures of celebrity and political bullying and libel via social media; social media supplanting face-to-face relations at dinner tables and in bedrooms; conspiracy theories overriding peer refereed science … No wonder many young people are checking out into worlds of videogames, comic superheroes and pharmacologically altered realities. While schools and school systems stand frozen in the headlights.

Our current situation is stark and simple, and probably can’t be understated. We live in an era where governments and political culture are modelling and exploiting the unethical, immoral and destructive use of digital media, and attacking the longstanding practices and criteria of print journalism, broadcast journalism, and peer-refereed science. Children and young adults inhabit an online environment where new forms of exchange, creativity and community sit alongside new forms of criminality and bullying, real and symbolic violence.

We are increasingly shaped and ruled by powerful corporations that are profiting from the reorganization of everyday life by social media and digital tools, making business deals with autocratic and theocratic states to suppress, control and surveil citizens, engaging in dubious labour practices, are implicated in forms of production and manufacture that are environmentally unsustainable, and who bury profits to avoid taxation responsibilities that might fund improved education, health care and communities.

And there is a multinational secret state/corporate nexus that monitors and surveils communications and exchange at all levels for their own commercial and political purposes. Nor is this all idle ideological debate: many communities have to contend with the stark realities of everyday poverty, violence and warfare, unstable policing and public security, the effects of environmental decay and climate change, public health and large-scale mental health crises, and the unavailability of meaningful and skilled work.

Digital technology per se didn’t cause these problems, nor does it in and of itself have the capacity to solve or fix them. But the current situation requires a remaking of citizenship, ethics, and a renewed social contract. This will require an ongoing “problematicisation”, to use Freire’s (1970) term, of these conditions as focal in the curriculum, thematically crossing social studies, the arts and sciences. Our view is that critical media literacy, multi-literacies and digital arts can be a staging ground for that new civic space – where critique and technical mastery can led to “transformed” and, in instances, “conserved” practices.

The curriculum challenge is about setting the grounds for rebuilding of community relations of work, exchange and trust – while at the same time giving young people renewed and powerful tools for weighing, analysing and engaging with truths and lies, representations and misrepresentations, narratives and fictions, residual and emergent traditions, competing cultural epistemologies and world views.

The everyday challenges for youth
How do today’s young people and children deal with right and wrong, truth and falsehood, representation and misrepresentation in their everyday lives online? How do they anticipate and live with and around the real consequences of their online actions and interactions with others? How do they navigate the complexities of their public exchanges and their private lives, and how do they engage with parental and institutional surveillance? Finally, how can they engage and participate as citizens, consumers and workers in the public and political, cultural and economic spheres of the internet? These questions are examined in current empirical studies of young peoples’ virtual and real everyday lives in educational institutions and homes (e.g. Livingstone & Sefton-Green, 2016; Quan-Haas, 2004).

On the ground, the everyday issues faced by digital youth are prima facie ethical matters. This is a key beginning point in an era where the ethical/moral implications of all forms of literacy are at once educational imperatives for informed, critical citizenship, civic participation and everyday social relations.

In this regard, the push towards a critical digital ethics and critical media literacy is the central educational challenge. It is not new, with prototypical work on media literacy initiated in Canada as early as the 1970s, evolving from broadcast TV and print advertising to current work on digital media internationally (C. Luke, 1990). But it has largely been seen as an adjunct to the core curriculum – this result is a relegation of new media into the category of popular culture, as neither part of the educational “basics” nor of longstanding school subjects of literature and scientific disciplines.

There are now almost continuous public calls for heightened child protection and surveillance in response to widespread moral panic around digital childhood (e.g. Havey & Puccio, 2016). To refer to this as a moral panic is not to understate the very real challenges and difficulties that digital technology raises for parents and families, schools and teachers. It is however, to acknowledge popular discourses and widespread generational frustration about the effects of digital technology on everyday life. These range from concerns about the displacement of embodied activity, physical play and face-to-face verbal exchange by compulsive online messaging and gaming, to online harassment, bullying, real and symbolic violence, from sexual and commercial exploitation of young people and children, to exposure to violence, pornography, ideological indoctrination and outright criminal behaviour.1

Their power to generate fascinating new expressive forms and relationships, to reshape the arts and sciences notwithstanding, digital media are amplifiers of the best and the worst, the sublime and the mundane, the significant and the most trivial elements of human behaviour, knowledge and interaction. How could it be any other way? It is all here online: statements, images, sounds, and acts of hatred and love, war and peace, bullying and courtship, truth and lies, violence and care, oppression and liberation – and every possible third or fourth space, in ever proliferating redundancy, cut through with noise and clutter.

The policy response
In the meantime, educational systems continue to pursue business as usual: a neoliberal consensus whereby human capital, standardization and commodification of the curriculum, and accountability via transnational testing regimes narrow the parameters of what will count as knowledge and schooling to human capital for economic competitiveness. If there is an unintended effect of the emergence of nationalist and xenophobic backlash, it is a reconsideration of the movement across OECD countries – aided and abetted by PISA2 – to a curriculum consensus that, in effect, reduces knowledge to a technical and measurable commodity for the “new economy”. What has been lost is the focus on what Delors (1996) called “learning to live together” and models of “active citizenship”, which, fortunately, have defied measurement and standardization but, accordingly, have been left by the side of the road in models of education for human capital job skills.

At the same time, the appropriation of digital multi-literacies (New London Group, 1996) into the official curriculum has been fertile ground for neoliberal educational policy. Our view is that there are three forms of the colonization of digital multi-literacies: (1) Digital multi-literacies have been incorporated into the human capital rationale, the very heart of corporate neoliberalism: redefined as requisite job skills or “tools” for the new economy. This strips it out of a broader critical education, it can silence classroom debate over the morality, ethics, and everyday social consequences of communications media, their ownership and control.

(2) Digital multi-literacies have been redefined as a measureable domain of curriculum for standardized assessment: digital tasks will be included in the current PISA testing. This has the effect of normalizing, controlling what officially ‘counts’ as digital creativity, critique and innovation; (3) Digital multi-literacies have been the object of commodification, with curriculum packages, approaches, methods and materials offered by publishers, corporations and consultants. This has the effect of eliminating the local, idiosyncratic, cultural play and interaction with new media and supplanting it with formulae and scripts, inevitably aligned with (1) and (2) above.

The alternative is to view critical media literacy as an “open” curriculum space for students and their teachers to explore, critique and construct texts, identities, forms of social and community actions (Share, 2009). This is about as new as Dewey’s (1907/2012) discussion of the project or “enterprise”. In Australia, digital multi-literacies and critical media literacy have “worked” precisely because there wasn’t an official curriculum definition, or even a formal academic/scholarly doxa around it.

But over the last decade of Neoliberal governance, the move has been to put all curriculum and pedagogy in the box of standardization, assessment, accountability, control and surveillance – aided by government initiated and corporate-sponsored work in the “learning sciences” to measure and assess digital practices. This is an appropriation of multi-literacies into the same system of standardization and commodification that defined and delimited print literacy and traditional curriculum. And it sets the terms for systems to replicate yet again the core problems with the teaching of print literacy: a “closed” curriculum that yields differentiated and stratified achievement.

Critical media literacy and digital ethics
How we can enlist and harness these media to learn to live together in diversity, mutual respect and difference, addressing complex social, economic and environmental problems while building convivial and welcoming, just and life-sustaining communities and societies is the key educational problem facing this generation of young people and their teachers. This is an ethical vision and an ethical challenge.

Our case is that a digital ethics – indeed, an ethics of what it is to be human and how to live just and sustainable lives in these technologically saturated societies and economies – is the core curriculum issue for schooling. Nor do we believe that is it an adequate educational or philosophic or political response to current cultural, geopolitical and economic conditions and events for this generation of teachers and scholars, parents, caregivers and community Elders to simply document or celebrate the emergence of new digital youth cultures without an attempt to call out ethical parameters and concrete historical consequences for communities, cultures and, indeed, human existence in this planetary ecosystem.

This is a generational and pedagogic responsibility as we stand at a juncture where residual and emergent cultures meet, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous, historically colonized and colonizing, settler and migrant communities attempt to reconcile and negotiate new settlements, where traditional, modernist and postmodern forms of life and technologies sit alongside each other, uneasily, often with increasing inequity and violence. Our view is that this is a moment that requires more from researchers, scholars and educators than descriptions of instances of local assemblage or student voice. Following on from Naomi Klein’s (2015) analysis of the effects of capitalism, technology and modernity on the planetary ecosystem – our view is that this historical convergence of forces and events has the potential to “change everything”.

The question of who owns, regulates and controls, and indeed profits and dominates from control and use of the dominant modes of information comes centre stage, shifting from religious authorities to the state and, ultimately, to the industrial and post-industrial, national and transnational corporation (Graham, 2017). Some regimes burn books, others write, print and mandate them; some governments censor the internet, all use it and monitor it; disputes over hate speech, libel and what can and cannot be said in the media-based civic sphere are now daily news – alongside of revelations of the profit structures, labour practices, environmental consequences and taxation schemes of those media and technology corporations that have become arguably the most profitable and dominant businesses in human history. Note that this political economy of communications typically is not studied in schools – even as this corporate order competes for the edubusiness of what counts as knowledge, how it is framed and assessed within these same schools (Picciano & Spring, 2012).

To begin to set a curriculum agenda for teaching and learning digital ethics, then, we outline three key foundational claims. These set the curriculum contents for digital ethics as a field or area for teaching and learning.

Our first claim is that digital ethics must operate at two analytically distinct but practically interwoven levels: it must engage at once with now classical questions about ideology (Kellner, 1978) and with questions about social actions and relations. As we have argued, the core concerns of educators about student digital lives relate to the ideational and semantic “stuff” – the ideologies, beliefs and values that learners must navigate online. This raises key questions about the truth, veracity, verification and belief, and, indeed, consequences of the information represented online. A recent article by a senior editor of The Guardian put it this way:

“For 500 years after Gutenberg, the dominant form of information was the printed page: knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format, one that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths. Now, we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob. What is common to these struggles – and what makes their resolution an urgent matter – is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth” (Viner, 2016).

At the same time, truth claims and representations are themselves social actions – consequential assertions about what is. Hence, our simultaneous and equivalent ethical concern is with the interactional pragmatics of life online. In response to the aforementioned concerns of educators and the public, digital ethics must focus on the use of online social media as a primary site for everyday social relationships with peers and others. To speak of ethics, then, refers simultaneously to both the ideational contents – the semantic stuff – of online representations, and the social and interactional relations of exchange between human subjects. Hence, our first foundational claim:

1) On ideology and social relations: That digital ethics must address questions about ideological contents – the values, beliefs, ideas, images, narratives, truths, that one produces and accesses online – and questions about social relations that are lived and experienced online, specifically the interactional and material consequences of individual and collective actions.

The ideational contents (M.A.K. Halliday’s (1978) “field”) and the interactional relational protocols and consequences (Halliday’s “tenor”) may appear analytically distinct, but are always interwoven in practice. What we say, write, speak, signify, how we speak, write, gesture, sign and to whom are ethical actions – no matter how conscious, unconscious or self-conscious, explicit, tacit or implicit the intentions and decisions of the human subject may be. In educational terms, then, digital ethics by definition engages both the “classification” of knowledge qua ideational content (whether construed as disciplinary, thematic, artistic, scientific) and the “framing” of knowledge via social relationships and actions (Bernstein, 1990).

Accordingly, our case is that schooling needs to introduce two interwoven strands of digital ethics:

  • The teaching and learning of a performative ethics that enables the evaluation and anticipation of real and potential human and cultural, social and economic, bodily and environmental outcomes and consequences of digital actions and exchanges, their real and potential participants and communities; and,
  • The teaching and learning of a critical literacy that enables the weighing and judging and critical analysis of truth claims vis a vis their forms, genres, themes, sources, interests and silences (Luke, 2018).

Our second claim focuses on the political economy of communications (Graham & Luke, 2013): that is, the relationships between state regulation and control, corporate ownership of the modes of information, and their ideological and economic effects. Following the prototypical work of Stuart Hall (1974) on broadcast media, the field of cultural studies has focused variously on audience positioning and responses to media texts (“decoding”), on the actual economic ownership and control of dominant modes of information (political economy) and how these are manifest in ideological message systems (“encoding”). Of course, digital exchanges operate on radically different dimensions of scope and scale, speed and interactivity than the broadcast media studied by Hall and colleagues. Digital tools have the revolutionary effect of altering the monologic and linear relationships of production/consumption, encoding/decoding established through broadcast radio, television and cinema, leading to claims that social media enables new community, agency and democratisation in ways that were intrinsically more difficult in an era of network and studio-based broadcast media (Isin & Ruppert, 2015; Jenkins et al. 2016).

For our present purposes, what remains powerful and relevant from Hall’s ground-breaking work is the acknowledgement of the ideological interests at work in the production and reception of screen and image. Where it takes up the challenge of digital content, the tendency in schooling has been to focus principally on student and teacher responses and uses of media texts (through models of viewer and reader response), on the semantic content (through models of comprehension, literary and, to an extent, ideology critique) – and, far less explicitly if ever, on the relationships between ideological content, relationships of institutional control and power, and the corporate ownership of the modes of information.

Consider this analogy. This would be very much if we were to teach – recalling Innis’ prototypical analysis of the “bias of communications” (1951) in pre-industrial mercantilism and industrial capitalism – how to read newspapers or how to use the railroad, without raising questions about who owns the press and transportation infrastructure, whose interests these structures of ownership and control serve, who benefits and who is exploited by these configurations of political economy. As Innis’ (1949) discussion of the relationships between “empire and communications” argues, all emergent communications media and transportation systems effectively reshaped human/machine and political economic and geographic ecosystemic relations as well.

The basis of economic rule (and plutocracy) has shifted from those of colonial trade documented by Innis (e.g. the Dutch East India Company, Hudson’s Bay Company) to the owners of elements of the dominant transportation infrastructure (e.g. the railways, steel, oil and auto industries), to the emergence of media empires (e.g., telephone, wireless, newspapers, television networks) – to the current situation, where the world’s economy is dominated by digital hardware/software /information corporations (e.g. Apple, Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Oracle, Tesla, Samsung), and producers of military and advanced technological hardware (e.g. Boeing, Airbus, arms manufacturers).

Hence, our second foundational claim:

2) On the political economy of communications: That in digital culture the political and economic are always personal, with every personal digital action an interlinked part of complex and often invisible economic exchanges that by definition support particular corporate and class interests and by definition have material and ecosystemic consequences.

The educational lesson here is simple: that the media that we use are not “neutral” or benign but are owned, shaped, enabled and controlled, capitalized upon and managed in their own corporate interests (Pasquale, 2015). These interests, social scientists, ecological scientists and community activists are increasingly realizing, have reshaped the transnational and domestic divisions of wealth, labour and power, and have broad, previously unexamined, effects on the use and sustainability of finite planetary resources and ecosystems (cf. Klein, 2015).

Our point is that the curriculum should entail both the study of the sources of information and their apparent distortions and ideological “biases” – but that such study can be extended to understanding the relationships between knowledges and global, planetary interests, including the corporate ownership, capitalization and profit from dominant modes of information. There are, furthermore, persistent questions about the complex relationships between digital work and culture and its relationship to carbon-based economy and resource utilisation (e.g., Bowers, 2014).

Our third claim is core to the establishment of any set of ethics. As argued, for many schools digital policy and practice tends to be both prohibitive in reaction to “risks” posed by digital technologies and simultaneously silent about the reconstructive institutional uses of digital technology. Ethics is by definition a normative field: like all education and schooling, ethical systems and claims are predicated upon a vision of what should be, of how human beings can and should live together.

The central message of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (1999) is that everyday judgments about right and wrong are grounded on visions of what might count as the “good life”. Ethical judgments are the prerequisite philosophic and practical grounds for civility and justice. Habermas (1996) refers to this as a “counterfactual ideal” that is presupposed in each speech exchange. Therefore, our third foundational claims is:

3) On a normative model of digital culture: That ethics cannot exist as a set of norms or procedures for everyday life in digital cultures without a shared normative vision of the good life.

In terms of digital ethics, this means that any set of ethical injunctions taught to youth and children by definitions presupposes a vision of “what should be”: a lifeworld where digital communications are used for ethical purposes for “the good”. Further, this version of “the good”, following Behabib (2002), must acknowledge the moral imperatives and challenges raised by diverse communities in pluralistic democratic societies, whether online or face-to-face. Our view, then, is that any school-based approach to media literacy and digital ethics must move beyond silences, prohibitions and negative injunctions (which, in-and-of themselves, are less than effective with adolescents) to the reconstructive project of modelling and enacting digital citizenship, convivial social relations, and action for social justice in education, economy and culture.

Our aim, then, is to reframe critical media literacy and digital ethics as part of a larger inclusive and decolonizing educational project that refuses to relegate diversity and difference (including childhood and adolescence) to “second class moral status” (2002, p. 2) and pursues a vision of sustainable forms of life for all.

Digital media as tools for conviviality
All communications media reorganize and alter our sense of space and time. They enable and constrain epistemic and cultural stance, the building, conservation, critique, and transformation of cultural forms, meanings and identities. And digital media has expanded exchange between students, teachers and citizens beyond the confines of embodied and geographic place. Successful work with young people shows how digital arts and culture can provide “tools for conviviality” (Illich, 1973): means for learning to live together within and across diversity and difference, space and time, in ways that don’t destroy environments and communities – particularly in the face of those who would build walls and recreate borders.

Unfortunately, we live in a dystopian media spectacle (Kellner, 2012) – where traditional authoritative sources of knowledge and cultural standpoints of print journalism and broadcast media have been left gasping for air, where science, truth and experience are but more competing texts, where relationships between figure and ground, sign and signified, celebrity opinion and scientific truth, real event and its representation have become blurred. This is the “implosion of meaning” (Baudrillard, 1994) predicted two decades ago – but, like global warming and planetary desecration, it seems to have occurred faster and more totally than anyone predicted. Digital ethics, multi-literacies and citizenship should be at the core of the curriculum for all.

The political events of 2016 have changed everything: in technology, media and communications, politics and culture, geopolitical and civic order, and, for many communities, the sustainability and survivability of everyday life. Any reconnoitring of critical media literacy, multi-literacies and digital ethics has to begin from an educational engagement and critical analysis of these new economic and cultural, civic and media conditions. For many students and communities have to contend not just with poverty, joblessness and inequality, but also the stark effects of autocracy and plutocracy, renewed racism and sexism, ideological distortion and untruth, unethical and unjust social relations and conditions, and fundamental issues around freedom, policing and public safety, control and surveillance.

Now, more than ever, schooling, education and literacies have to be about “reading and writing the world” – to return to Freire (1970). Lives and futures are on the line.



1. For example:

2. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations intended to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading.



Aristotle. (1999) Nichomachean Ethics. 2nd Ed. T. Irwin, Trans. London: Hackett.

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Benhabib, S. (2002) The Claims of Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bernstein, B. (1990) On Pedagogic Discourse. London: Routledge.

Bowers, C. (2014). The False Promises of the Digital Revolution: How computers transform education, work, and international development in ways that are ecologically unsustainable. New York: Peter Lang.

Davies, N. (2009). Flat Earth News: An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media. New York: Vintage.

Delors, J. et al. (1996) Learning: the treasure within. Paris: UNESCO.


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