A Few Responses to Criticism of My SXSW-Edu Keynote on Media Literacy

danah boyd
5 min readMar 16, 2018

Last week, I had the honor of keynoting SXSW-Edu. I was asked to be provocative and stir debate. You can read a crib of my talk here or watch the video. In my talk, I asked the audience and educators more broadly to challenge their assumptions about media literacy. Over the last week, I’ve been wading through the various public and private responses that I’ve received before crafting a broader response. This is my attempt to do so.

Most of the criticism that I’ve received has come from those who are deeply invested in media literacy who were frustrated with my depiction of the field. I respect that I’m challenging a sacred cow, although I reject the criticism that I’m dismissing the values, goals, or ideals that are central to those who are working hard to find a way to education the next generation. I also stand by my finding that there are a lot of things that currently exist in everyday classrooms that are labeled “media literacy.” One if the weirdest parts of doing fieldwork across the country sampling for diverse communities and youth is that I’ve seen a lot of dynamics in schools that are unimaginable to my friends in education. I’ve seen kids smoking marijuana in class while the substitute teacher of the day desperately tries to gain control. I’ve walked in on kids having sex in the teacher’s lounge; they weren’t ashamed but mostly annoyed that I interrupted. I’ve watched a biology teacher integrate creationism into his lessons. And yes over and over and over again, I’ve heard teachers tell students not to use Wikipedia. Sadly, this isn’t an outdated finding. I truly wish it were. I also wish that I didn’t watch parents tell their kids that only Fox was a trustworthy news source. Or the inverse. This is part of the reality of this country, whether we like it or not. And I’m trying to grapple with the array of dynamics that happen in the over 125,000 schools in this country. Part of what is challenging about talking in an environment like SXSW-Edu is that it’s comprised of a self-selected group of educators.

Another critique that I’ve received stems from a misreading of my argument. I am not arguing that media literacy causes hatred. I’m arguing that it doesn’t solve it. And, more importantly, that a well-intended but ineffective intervention can actually do harm. I grew up with Nancy Reagan’s War on Drugs campaign, the one the involved the frying pan and the egg. When my peers started experimenting with marijuana and concluded that it was nothing like the message they heard, they assumed that there was no truth to the message that drugs mess with your brain. Coke and then meth flew through my community. I’ve long been angered by how these unnuanced messages failed to engage people with where they were. As a result, I want us to be cautious as we’re entering into a conversation about media literacy solutionism. Do we really know what the outcomes will be? Or do we just hope that it will be what we intend it to be? Facebook intended to create community. Netflix intended to inform people about the costs of bullying.

A third critique I’ve heard is roughly: how dare I attack media literacy when the problems of polarization and hatred are really the fault of companies like Facebook and Google. In other talks, I do critique the dynamics of platform companies and, more specifically, the role of financialized capitalism in undermining information structures. But this wasn’t a talk about that. And I do think it’s legitimate to talk about other factors. After all, where we are in society isn’t just a product of any one vector. It’s an ecosystem. We could talk about how climate is destabilizing migration patterns, which is magnifying fear of other. We could talk about how the rise in perceived inequality is rooted in the debt culture and the implications this has for radicalizeable young people. We could talk about how the loss of news media is rooted in private equity and how not knowing anyone in the industry undermines trust in the journalistic project. There are many factors at play. But my goal with this talk wasn’t to talk about root causes; it was to challenge a common solution being put forward based on what I’m already seeing play out.

What surprised me the most is how few folks really grappled with my primary argument: if we’re not careful, media literacy and critical thinking will be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology.

With that in mind, I have some questions for those who think that I’m off base.

  1. Can you give me examples of programs that are rooted in, speaking to, and resonant with conservative and religious communities in this country? In particular, I’d love to know about programs that work in conservative white Evangelical and religious black and LatinX communities? I’d love to hear how educators integrate progressive social justice values into conservative cultural logics.
    Context: To the best that I can tell, every program I’ve seen is rooted in progressive (predominantly white) ways of thinking. I know that communities who define “fake news” as CNN (as well as black communities who see mainstream media as rooted in the history of slavery and white supremacy) have little patience for the logics of progressive white educators. So what does media literacy look like when it starts with religious and/or conservative frameworks? What examples exist?
  2. Can you tell me how you teach across gaslighting? How do you stabilize students’ trust in Information, particularly among those whose families are wary of institutions and Information intermediaries?
    Context: Foreign adversaries (and some domestic groups) are primarily focused on destabilizing people’s trust in information intermediaries. They want people to doubt everything and turn their backs on institutions. We are seeing the impact of this agenda. I’m not finding that teaching someone the source of a piece of content helps build up trust. Instead, it seems to further undermine it. So how do you approach media literacy to build up confidence in institutions and information intermediaries?

In other words, what I still haven’t gotten a satisfactory answer to in my year of looking is how educators are bridging polarization and helping students not be destabilized. I agree that most people will not be destabilized by an educational intervention. Most people aren’t destabilized by watching a Netflix suicide that promotes suicide as the solution. But some are. And those who are are already struggling. So I’m trying to find approaches that work in these communities. Can you point me in the right direction?

Another line of what I think are VERY appropriate criticisms concerns my recommendations. To be honest, I’m not sure I even believe in them. Yes, I believe in empathy and building resilience. Yes, I relish people recognizing unconscious bias and grappling with the limits of their own mind. But I’m not at all convinced that asking people to strengthen their individual cognitive capacities will do a lot to address a complex systemic issue. But I was speaking to a room full of educators. And I was encouraged to not just critique. So I had to recommend something. But please, feel free to tear those ideas to shreds and offer alternates to address the problems I’m identifying. I’m far more confident in the problems than in my proposed solutions.

For what it’s worth, when I try to untangle the threads to actually address the so-called “fake news” problem, I always end in two places: 1) dismantle financialized capitalism (which is also the root cause of some of the most challenging dynamics of tech companies); 2) reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people. But neither of those are recommendations for educators. <grin>



danah boyd

researcher of technology & society | Microsoft Research, Data & Society, NYU | zephoria@zephoria.org