Assessing the significance of media literacy in Latvia: A critical tool of societal resilience

Abstract

In recent years, Latvian governmental and non-government interlocutors have made impressive progress toward advancing citizens’ critical capacity for critical thinking in this new age of information. This will not come as a complete surprise for those who follow Latvian politics, considering the fact that Latvia has been for years a constant target of its far East neighbor’s information warfare. Consequently, Latvian officials have necessarily become increasingly innovative in responses and collaborative with other in-country stakeholders, especially since the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Across academic debates, political speeches, and media channels in Latvia, however, there appears to be a serious under-recognition of the wide-ranging initiatives in place to promote media literacy and, in turn, combat information warfare (including, colloquially speaking, the “fake news” phenomenon). To address this gap in awareness of Latvian efforts, this article first presents background information by discussing why media literacy should matter to policymakers and civil society groups and then examines the complex and ever-changing landscapes of Latvia’s media and political sectors. This article is the first in a series that contributes to updating and assessing Latvia’s responses to combatting hostile information threats through a highly promising strategy – media literacy education of youth.

Media Literacy: Who cares?

In the age of increasingly - and, at times, frighteningly - more sophisticated technology and easier access to information, education instructors and policymakers around the world have been debating and re-conceptualizing the concept “media literacy.” While nuanced media literacy definitions abound on the Internet, a cut-and-dry version is simply “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication” (National Association for Media Literacy Education). This term then encompasses all channels of media, from newspapers, magazines and TV, to electronic forums like social media. But why are we hearing so often about media literacy in a cross-cultural context, whether it be in the United States or Latvia or Peru or Australia? Upon finally grasping that misinformation, disinformation, and “fake news” trends are negatively affecting their respective societies, countries realize that they are sorely unprepared. Indeed, being media literate is a critical but often forgotten-about skill in our fast-paced information age of the twenty-first century. Being media literate and practicing sound critical thinking help us accomplish two feats that otherwise prove challenging: 1) “To understand the complex messages we receive from the television, radio, Internet, social media, newspapers, magazines, books, video games and music” and 2) “To recognize how media fundamentally affects the way we think, see, feel and behave” (National Association for Media Literacy Education).

In the past, media channels were not as widespread nor all-consuming as they are today; moreover, those media channels propagating false or faulty information and photos were, generally speaking, much easier to identify. In the United States, these include conspiracy newspapers that insist aliens are living on Earth, or dolphins suddenly have sprouted human arms. Outrageous headlines can be found still today, but the majority of people can instantly discern that such headlines are obviously untrue and realize that such newspapers are largely published for entertainment. However, we are at present experiencing more sophisticated and harder-to-identify false news techniques that are created not merely for amusement but rather aimed at advancing ideological and political goals. That is, we no longer live in a world where we can so effortlessly pinpoint truth from non-truth. With the explosion of the Internet, the sheer volume of information propagated and ongoing advances in news-making technologies – not to mention the critical absence of “gatekeepers” who could regularly sift through true versus untrue information, pictures, websites, and more – misleading, politically-motivated, and downright false information is everywhere and harder than ever to identify. Even as this article is being written, we have learned that video footage can be easily manipulated to insert fake speech into the mouths of notable figures, a famous example of which is the University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project. By integrating audio clips from the former president’s previous speeches and speech from other random videos, words were manually inserted into the former president’s mouth (you can read about the more scientific explanation here: https://grail.cs.washington.edu/projects/AudioToObama/). Upon watching this phenomenon on YouTube – and thousands of other similar examples – it is near impossible for an everyday citizen to recognize that this footage has been manipulated. To underscore this troubling phenomenon, these hundreds of thousands of manipulated footage, unlike the University of Washington’s project, do not always exist for well-intentioned, educational purposes.

Social media has become a primary channel for individuals to publish and share untrue or biased information at lightning speed, and those most prominent channels we know so well – Google, Facebook, Twitter – have faced serious criticism to respond and set up mechanisms to fight back. While Google and Facebook have made some discernible efforts to allow users to report fake news and provide feedback, Twitter is noticeably lagging behind and is an all-too-accessible mechanism to create and propagate fake news (see The Guardian’s “Google acts against fake news on search engine,” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/25/google-launches-major-offensive-against-fake-news and Engadget’s “Twitter’s fake news problem is getting worse,” https://www.engadget.com/2018/02/17/twitter-s-fake-news-problem-is-getting-worse/). In essence, such pervasive social media companies can no longer claim (and be believed) to be neutral actors, as we personally witness the swift, and at times frightening ways, in which intentionally false information (that is, disinformation) and misinformation can significantly impact and alter social movements, political processes, and ultimately the human psyche on a global scale.   

With this context in mind, I now turn to reflect on how these complex forces are currently affecting the Baltic region and specifically Latvia, and how – on a more optimistic note – media literacy has the potential to become a primary civic engagement tool for combating the spread of misinformation and disinformation and building what we call “societal resilience.”        

Politics and media in Latvia: A complicated tale

In the Baltic region, terms like “disinformation” and “information warfare” have for years been regularly debated and discussed in policy and academic circles. Meanwhile, a number of Western European countries and the United States are still reeling from and trying to efficiently respond to the intrusions and repercussions of recent hostile disinformation campaigns in their respective political processes. A non-exhaustive list of this increasingly common phenomenon can include the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia; French, Dutch, and German elections; and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, among others. While the results of such information manipulation campaigns are incredibly divergent and not always successful, the fact is they are happening more quickly and commonly than ever before. A glimpse into the role of media in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania uncovers some interesting insights. Disinformation campaigns hold a significant level of potency in that such campaigns blend politicized ideas and messages with emotion-inducing content, thereby drawing in a loyal base of followers. They also are notably juxtaposed with “everyday” stories and information that appeal to and are understood by a wider audience, whether it be cooking recipes or advice about raising children or caring for household pets. In this sense, disinformation actors can gradually appeal to and secure a large following because of this strategic approach to disseminating information and gaining reader loyalty. A recent study found that television, a traditional media channel, is still the highest regarded in all three of the Baltics: 65% in Estonia, 62% in Lithuania, and 61% in Latvia. Meanwhile, social media is regarded with low levels of trust, notably with 28% in Lithuania, 27% in Latvia, and 20% in Estonia (read more of Splidsboel Hansen’s “Bad News from Riga: The future challenge of disinformation” here: http://liia.lv/en/publications/security-in-the-baltic-sea-region-realities-and-prospects-the-riga-conference-papers-2017-643).

 Russia’s information threats in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been present for decades, and will remain so for years to come because one of the fundamental purposes behind these threats – to foster discord and divisions among the Russophone populations – has proven relatively successful combined with low costs (check out The Atlantic’s “How to survive a Russian hack” at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/02/russia-disinformation-baltics/515301/ and NATO Stratcom COE’s in-depth study, Russia’s Footprint in the Nordic-Baltic Information Environment, https://www.stratcomcoe.org/russias-footprint-nordic-baltic-information-environment-0). Disinformation campaigns can prove to be highly effective due to the speed in which they are produced and spread, particularly in the cyber realm. The Riga-based Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica has for years tracked in detail hundreds of examples of this disturbing phenomenon. One such example was in April 2017, when a number of rumors centered on U.S. President Donald Trump’s perceived ambiguous stance toward the Baltic States and their continued contribution to NATO. Re:Baltica showed that an article from the source rubaltic.ru claiming Trump would nix funding for the three countries was shared across 37 different online sources - in just three days. (The full story is found here: https://en.rebaltica.lv/2017/04/small-time-propagandists/.)

Turning to the diverse range of measures that Latvia has taken in response to continuing disinformation campaigns, it is important to note first-off that Latvia ranked 28th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index (in comparison, Lithuania placed 36th and Estonia placed 12th). This analysis serves as a useful reminder that Latvia has made impressive progress in establishing a liberal, free media sphere, amidst ongoing ethnolinguistic tensions and regaining independence less than 30 years ago. As mentioned in a 2017 Ministry of Culture report, we see that 90% of Latvians use Latvian-language media channels, whereas 80% Russophones residing in Latvia use Russian-language media channels.

Keeping in mind this unique demographic environment in the face of frequent information threats from Russian actors, national-level responses to disinformation and media bias in Latvia have become gradually more diverse and inclusive of different stakeholders, particularly since 2014. Below is a non-exhaustive list of vertical and horizontal efforts that have been or are currently being implemented. In the government realm, there are, most notably, for the first time in such a comprehensive format, the Mass Media Policy Guidelines of Latvia 2016-2020, rolled out by the Ministry of Culture with input from a diverse working group composed of representatives from several other ministries and Latvia’s national media council. This set of policies is more holistic and ambitious than both the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media from the 1990s and the more well-known Electronic Mass Media Law from 2010, and it prioritizes five policy outputs: Diversity of mass media environment, Quality and responsibility of mass media, Education of professionals in mass media, Media literacy, and Securitability of mass media environment. (You can find the complete 20+ page document here: https://www.km.gov.lv/uploads/ckeditor/files/EN/media
_policy/Mass%20Media%20Policy%20Guidelines%20of%20Latvia%202016-2020.pdf
.) Less known is that this top-down policy has been plagued by a number of challenges, including financial issues and delayed stages of implementation. Scholar Sigita Struberga mentioned similar challenges plaguing this year’s anticipated creation of a media channel for Russophones in Latvia, not just in financial terms but also in terms of interpersonal issues and general pessimism that this channel would have the intended positive impact on said population (read her piece “Addressing Russian Propaganda. Experience of Latvia: From Fact Recognition to Proactive Action” here: http://providus.lv/article_files/3424/original/ES_Nr_2017-02.pdf?1512993224).                                                                                                

In addition to being in charge of and implementing the Guidelines alongside numerous civil society stakeholders, the Ministry of Culture conducts public opinion polls about social media activity and publishes research findings about media literacy competencies among Latvian youth. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education supports and hosts media literacy trainings and other educational programming across the country, and the Ministry of Defense conducts military trainings for youth and contributes to research analyzing psychological resilience. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs partakes in strategic communications research and collaborates with NGOs, such as Riga-based Education Development Center, on youth education projects and publications. Altogether, these efforts reflect a comprehensive and institutional approach targeting social and education disparity issues salient in the country and combating information threats. Some Latvian scholars convincingly have argued that this exact approach is more effective than attempting to shut down individual disinformation channels (for example, see Re:Baltica co-founder Inga Spriņģe’s thought-provoking work).

In Latvia, non-government efforts combating media bias and disinformation campaigns are becoming more commonplace and merit equal academic attention. The National Library of Latvia offers media literacy trainings for both youth and adults. There are also a number of organizations intended to advance people’s debating and/or critical thinking skills, including Quo tu domā? and Skeptiskā Biedrība. For example, Members of Skeptiskā Biedrība travel around the country hosting media literacy workshops and have published a helpful lecture series on YouTube of media literacy materials in the Latvian language. Then on the reporting side, there’s the Baltic Media Centre of Excellence that hosts trainings for objective journalism across the Baltic region. More specifically, there’s a host of local Latvian-language media channels that have compiled lists of biased media outlets to avoid. In the cyber dimension, Latvian volunteers are part of the “elf movement” that counters troll activities online, a relatively new phenomenon that is gaining track in other countries in the region.

International stakeholders such as the British Council are also invested in promoting media literacy and competency-based education in Latvia. For example, the British Council offers financial support to local-level NGOs to construct Latvian-language competency-based curricula for school teachers. Additionally, the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, always referred to in academic literature and debates, is located in Riga and serves both a symbolic and practical purpose. Symbolically, they demonstrate to other countries that Latvia is not only serious about fighting and monitoring information threats, but that it also has the support of the broader international community in advancing this endeavor. Practically, StratCom produces regular high-quality annual reports and thematic studies, such as its recent February publication Fake News. A Roadmap, as well as hosts high-level conferences such as the annual Riga StratCom Dialogues. Then there’s the AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks and assesses daily disinformation trends in the region. The NGO Education Development Center is implementing at present its British Council-funded project “Exploring.Belonging.Acting” to connect youth across Latvia and promote their critical thinking, and the NGO.

Last but not least, and often in cooperation with both NGOs and local government bodies, universities and schools across the country – from Liepāja to Daugavpils to Riebini to Riga and more – have also in recent years grasped the importance of promoting media literacy in their respective communities and host a variety of presentations, seminars, and speakers related to fostering media literacy and Internet skills and detecting fake information. Such types of seminars are also being regularly offered by groups such as Young Media House and TechHub Riga, and they feature a diverse range of community stakeholders across academia and the private sector to discuss these topics. (Check out the recent event at Daugavpils University here, http://www.norden.lv/en/news/seminar-strengthening-media-and-information-literacy-skills-in-the-education-process-experience-a/, one at Rīga Stradiņš University here, https://isc.rsu.lv/programme/guest_lectures, and most recently one at TechHub Riga here, https://riga.techhub.com/event/techhub-riga-monthly-meetup-fake-news/). What these mostly localized efforts demonstrate is that lexicon surrounding media literacy and critical thinking are infiltrating local community and educational spaces and thereby becoming increasingly mainstream. These grassroots-level efforts cannot be understated in their importance; these initiatives target the particularly vulnerable younger generations of Latvians and equip them with the critical thinking skills necessary for not only advancing their own professional development but also advancing the broader framework and national narrative of building societal resilience.

Juxtaposed with the range of activities on both the government and non-government plane, however, are some sobering national statistics to paint a broader picture of the media landscape. Last year, the Ministry of Culture found that just 40% of the Latvian population can distinguish trustworthy information from false information, whereas 60% reported they did not feel confident in their ability to discern fact from fake (find the news article published in Latvian here: https://skaties.lv/zinas/latvija/sabiedriba/medijpratiba-latvija-tikai-40-iedzivotaju-spej-atskirt-uzticamu-informaciju-no-meliem/). Furthermore, a public opinion study from the research center SKDS showed that 83% of participants agreed that media broadly shapes the public’s perception, yet only 47% of them thought it shaped their own perception (this and additional statistics can be found here: http://m.lvportals.lv/visi/skaidrojumi/289770-infografika-medijpratiba-latvija/). These figures underscore the critical need for all age groups across the country to become more media literate and intentional with the media they digest. Further considerations should be given to how the aforementioned range of activities toward fighting manipulated or propagandistic information has trickled down to and impacted the everyday Latvian resident. 

In conceptual terms, we toe a fine line between realizing that societal change on such a serious topic does not occur overnight and giving the deserved attention and recognition to the wide-ranging spectrum of individuals and organizations in Latvia who are strengthening their communities’ resilience, often in micro-level and nuanced ways that go undetected and across every level of society.

Final remarks

This article has summarily described the sociopolitical and media environments of Latvia, as well as recognized a diverse range of responses implemented by both government and non-government actors. To contribute to ongoing discourses about countering information threats and bolstering societal resilience, I offer the following insights gained from my research and own civic outreach in Latvia: 

  1. Contrary to mainstream academic debates, I believe that Latvia generally has made and continues to make considerable progress to counter hostile disinformation campaigns, especially since 2014 and certainly since the turn of the century. Not as prominently discussed are the insufficient resources and funding the country faces in producing counter-measures. Policy implementation delays and fragmented or slow communication among national actors and grassroots actors are also present. Teachers across Latvia are well aware, and have been, that they need to better integrate critical thinking and media literacy into their classrooms. However, they do not have at hand concrete ideas, resources, and Latvian-language materials to do so easily. For example, the Ministry of Culture’s Guidelines discussed earlier do not provide concrete curricula for teachers to follow, although local education NGOs are attempting to remedy this issue. While these circumstances altogether signal the need for improving media literacy access, investigative journalism, and media bias, these circumstances are not necessarily permanent and can improve with time, as well as attention and due action of appropriate stakeholders.
  1. The emphasis on media literacy is largely politicized by the national interlocutors of Latvia, and as such, Russia is painted time and time again as the primary threat to societal unity. For example, as written in Latvia’s most recent National Security Concept, “In order to develop a favourable public opinion, the Russian Federation uses a wide variety of instruments that are specifically created for different audiences. These instruments include various television and radio stations of the Russian Federation that retransmit content created in Russia” (see the whole document here: http://www.mod.gov.lv/~/media/AM/Par_aizsardzibas_
    nozari/Plani,%20koncepcijas/NDK/NDK_ENG_final.ashx
    ). The section on information threats in this official government document mentions Russia as the only threat, and for obvious and well-documented reason. Yet to complicate this hegemonic national security narrative, I have found in the realm of civic engagement and media literacy outreach that it is not always effective to cast blame on specific national actors. After conducting a series of presentations about critical thinking around Latvia, I have found it more effective – and the NGOs with whom I have collaborated have tended to agree – to avoid politicized content and examples that clearly paint one country or actor as the colloquial “bad guy,” whether it be Russia or the United States or the EU. Instead, I find that youth are more receptive to media literacy exercises and critical thinking scenarios that may be outlandish or silly in nature, but do not run the risk of being offensive. These students’ backgrounds are ethnically diverse and cross-cultural, and politicizing media literacy among youth in local contexts can in fact be more detrimental than beneficial. This insight warrants further consideration, given Latvian government’s former tendency to politicize the purpose and importance of media literacy. What would happen, for example, if national actors were to downplay this politicized nature and instead encapsulate the critical need for media literacy as merely obligatory for any established free, democratic society?
  1. Broadly speaking, the Ministry of Culture’s Mass Media Policy Guidelines are being implemented at an important, symbolic time. Latvia is not only celebrating its Centenary this year, but also implementing a range of education reforms to transition to a competency-based education system (and provide Latvian-only instruction in schools). In this sense, Latvia faces both impressive challenges and an ideal opportunity to ensure that the expectations and visions regularly discussed at the highest levels of government become reality for everyday citizens and work toward creating a more cohesive and resilient country.

From the widespread range of concrete policies to grassroots activities to high-level attention and debates on this matter, Latvia faces a strong, positive future when it comes to successfully managing the information threats it has faced and continues to face to ensure a more resilient society. Communication channels must remain open and consistent between each layer of government, not to mention between these layers, NGOs, and local communities across the country. Furthermore, easy-to-follow media literacy trainings and Latvian-language curricula must remain a priority and accessible in the years to come. By doing this, Latvia can serve as a true success story for the region and more broadly the international community, as well as a model for advancing societal resilience in the face of hostile information threats.

At the same time, the operationalization of media literacy is what remains paramount and a real challenge in Latvia. From the lens of national security, there are very practical reasons as to why information threats have become politicized and securitized. Yet when the promising strategy of strengthening media literacy among students becomes encapsulated in a highly politicized narrative, how does this shape the effectiveness of fostering critical thinking and societal unity among communities across the country?        

A forthcoming article will further explore this question, as well as highlight an especially active education NGO, the Education Development Center. In the past year alone, this NGO has rolled out a number of impressive media literacy-related projects, many of which have received input or guidance from the Ministries of Education, Culture, and Foreign Affairs and are adaptable for schoolteachers and students alike. This organization is now developing Latvian-language curricula accessible to education instructors across Latvia.

"The views expressed in this writing are entirely the author's own views and do not reflect those of the U.S. Fulbright Program, the U.S. government, nor any other entity."

Published 03 April 2018

Author Alina Clay