What is "Media Literacy" and why do I Need it?


I have a question for anyone who creates school curricula: why do we teach students to know the difference between a rhombus and a trapezoid, but not how to interpret online marketing messages? Because one of those seems waaaaay more useful to me than the other. Given that over 90% of teens go online daily, it seems pretty crucial to talk to teens about how they interpret the messages they receive online.

When I say “messages,” I don’t mean literal, person-to-person messages like the ones you receive in your DMs or through Facebook, or even in comments on your posts or pictures. I mean the implied cultural messages we receive daily when we are exposed to certain kinds of images, stories, or forms of marketing. Learning to identity these kinds of messages, understanding their meanings, and recognizing how they impact your thinking and your choices are vital skills to develop as an online user. These skills are what people refer to as media literacy

A quick disclaimer here: this article is in no way close to being a full lesson on media literacy. But it should be enough to get you started.

Learn how to spot influencers

Have you ever looked at Gigi Hadid’s Instagram account and instantly felt uncomfortable or self-conscious about your body, your money, or even your whole life? She looks beautiful in every picture, everything she owns probably costs more than the average person’s rent, and she’s always in some gorgeous, exotic location, surrounded by all her beautiful friends. Her life looks like a fairy tale; she’s a textbook example of how being successful on social media can launch someone into stardom. And that’s the point—she’s an influencer

An influencer is a someone well-connected, with a large following on their social media platforms. They set trends or inspire their followers, and they’re usually at the forefront of whatever niche they represent. They speak with authority, and their followers place a large amount of trust in them. They can be celebrities, fitness enthusiasts, scientists, activists, writers…anything, really. Influencers are not inherently good or bad, they’re just people with a powerful platform. But the key to understanding how they make their money is in the name: in-flu-ence. 

The term influencer is pretty straightforward, it implies that the job of an influencer is to, well, influence people. Maybe the influencer is an activist, and they inspire their followers to speak up about a certain issue. Maybe the influencer is a makeup artist or fashion blogger, and they promote a certain brand or product to their followers. Or maybe the influencer is a fitness guru, and they convince their followers to adopt a certain diet or lifestyle. Whatever the influencer’s thing is, they are selling you something. In fact, there’s an entire form of marketing called “influencer marketing,” and it works by paying influencers to sell certain products, messages, or ideologies to their followers. This kind of marketing is huge—the influencer market value is currently worth $1.6 billion (US), and that’s expected to increase by almost another billion by 2019. 

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with influencers or with following one, just like there isn’t anything wrong with buying a product in a store. But as a member of the population an influencer is marketing to, it’s necessary to be able to identify what an influencer is trying to sell to you, and whether or not that’s something you really want to buy. Sometimes it’s obvious, like when an influencer directly names the product(s) they are selling. And sometimes it’s not, like when you scroll through Kylie Jenner’s Instagram account and wish that your life were as cool as hers, and that maybe if you just bought the jeans she’s wearing in that selfie, your butt would look as good as hers does. That’s right, she’s selling you those jeans. It’s up to you to be aware of those subtle marketing messages and to use your judgement to determine how much you’ll let them influence you.

Choose which messages to listen to, and which to ignore

Whenever we go outside or online, we are exposing ourselves to a myriad of cultural messages and forms of marketing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an inevitable part of living in this world. But these messages thrive in online spaces, especially on social media. With the introduction of hashtags, certain ideas and messages can spread like wildfire and become extremely potent. A useful example (and one that I’ve talked about before) is #fitspiration

At first glance, fitspiration seems empowering. Images that fall under the fitspiration umbrella show muscular, athletic people, accompanied by messages of endurance, motivation, and sacrifice. But fitspiration motivates people and sells products by creating a culture of shame. Fitspiration uses messages like “Somewhere someone busier than you is running right now,” or “What do you want to be this summer: fit or jealous?” (seriously, those are real examples) to group people into two categories: the good, motivated ones and the bad, lazy ones. But this marketing works by ensuring that you are never sure if you’ve secured a spot in the “good” category. You might think that you’re an active, healthy person, but if someone somewhere is running even though they are busier than you, doesn’t that mean you should be doing more? Behind the “inspirational” images and quotes of fitspiration is an entire industry that profits whenever you join a gym, buy a new pair of running shoes, or sign up for that diet plan. They bank on you never feeling like you're "enough."

No, buying a gym membership or getting new running shoes isn’t automatically bad. But if you do so because some messaging you were exposed to made you feel bad about yourself, it’s not healthy. Anytime you see a graphic or a quote that makes you feel small or lazy or insignificant in some way, take a step back and ask yourself how the people behind that message profit from making you feel those things. Will feeling ashamed motivate you to sign up for CrossFit? Will feeling unstylish make you want to buy an expensive pair of trendy shoes? This form of marketing works by creating a sense of want or lack—and then by selling you solutions to that lack. If you want to go buy a new pair of shoes, go for it! But don’t let negative marketing messages manipulate your feelings or your spending habits. 

Get savvy about meta data

You’ve probably heard the term “meta data” before, right? I’m a self-proclaimed right-brain, so for years I automatically ignored conversations about meta data because it sounded complicated and boring. And to some extent, it is extremely complicated and boring. To understand everything about meta data, you’d probably need at least a doctorate degree in computer sciences. But it’s totally possible to develop a basic working knowledge of what meta data is, how it works, and how it impacts your online experiences. 

I could go into (very limited) detail about how meta data is information about your identity, browsing history, spending habits, and online activity that is stored and used to create specific algorithms tailored to sell you stuff. But instead, it’d be simpler and more useful to talk about how you, the user, sees meta data at work. Have you ever googled a brand of clothing and casually browsed their website? Did you notice that the next day, your newsfeed was full of ads from that brand, showing you the same products as the ones you were just looking at the day before? That’s meta data in action!

This kind of marketing has been around for years now, but it’s getting more sophisticated and omnipresent. Here’s an example. About a month ago, my older sister got engaged. She sent me an iMessage with a photo of her wearing her new engagement ring, with the caption “Couldn’t wait to show you!!” Note that the words “wedding,” “ring,” “engagement,” or “engaged” were never used once. A couple days later, my younger sister created a group chat on Snapchat for the three of us called “Official Wedding Groupies.” Ever since then, both my Facebook and my Instagram have been literally clogged with advertisements for wedding dresses, wedding photographers, and, most of all, engagement rings. Even when I delete my browsing history, the ads don’t go away.

Once again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeing ads. That’s just part of living in a capitalist society. But before my social media’s wedding blitz, I was never interested in engagement rings. I was always convinced that if I got married, a simple wedding band would do. Now that I’m surrounded by constant images of beautiful, shiny engagement rings, I’m starting to fantasize about how nice one of those would be. The ads I’m being exposed to aren’t just selling pretty rings, they’re selling the notion that engagement rings are a necessary part of engagements and, by extension, all loving monogamous relationships. And the more I see them, the more I start to believe that. Luckily, as soon as I identified the message that I was being sold, that belief started to fade away. Like I said earlier, it’s okay to see ads, but it’s crucial to be aware of the power that marketing wields, and to pay attention to the way advertisements affect how you think and what you want

Marketing is all around us, and we can’t ignore it. Besides, sometimes you really just want to buy Kylie Jenner’s new eyeshadow palette without being judged! Being affected by marketing doesn’t mean you’re weak or sheep-like, it happens to all of us. But often, marketing manipulates your emotions into thinking that you need something you don't, and that’s not cool. Developing your media literacy can help you combat those sneaky, hidden forms of marketing and make you less likely to be manipulated.


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Sara Dueck (she/her) is a queer, feminist, usually nervous, over-educated millennial with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies. Sara grew up in a small town in Southern Alberta, Canada - deep in the heart of right-wing territory.

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