BEIRUT: In an age of consumerism and Donald Trump sound bites, the media undeniably influences how people interpret events around them. The Arab world is no exception: advertisements reinforce social norms while the television operates as mouthpieces for local politicians. Saturated in a climate of deception, less people worldwide seem to be reading the media critically. It’s in this context that a team of professors and researchers from the Lebanese American University founded the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut. Their aim is to improve media literacy in the Arab world by developing a specific curriculum for schools across the region, training teachers and scholars about the issue.
Monday, LAU began hosting its fourth annual academy, which will last until Aug. 16. The theme of their work this year focuses on civil activism and youth radicalization in the region, just a few of many issues encompassed by their work.
“Media literacy is not just about propaganda,” said Dr. Jad Melki, the founder of MDLAB. “It also [includes issues] of negative advertisements and learning about privacy and security safety online.”
While that’s certainly the case, safeguarding people from propaganda has become one of the most pressing issues in Lebanon and the region. Extremist groups such as Daesh (ISIS) have played on the grievances of disenfranchised youth, trying to attract them through their online channels. Their video production quality is frighteningly impressive, which makes sense considering their quest to sensationalize and normalize a culture of fear, indoctrination, and grotesque violence.
Social media hasn’t necessarily empowered youth to counter or protect themselves from such propaganda. Instead, it’s enabled many to spread the dangerous views they have already consumed.
Lubna Maaliki, the director of MDLAB, cited a case of a Lebanese boy who created a fake Facebook profile in order to propagate sectarian views. Studies suggest that such usage of social media is becoming increasingly common, further highlighting the need to help the ensuing generation develop a critical approach to the content they’re bombarded with.
“It’s very important to promote media literacy at a young age,” Maaliki told The Daily Star. “We work with high school students between the ages of 14-18 and university students too.”
Contrary to popular perception, conventional media remains most relevant throughout the Arab world. In Egypt, television programs are consumed by swathes of the population, though news networks are unable to perpetuate perspectives that run counter to the state’s.
Lebanon is another example of a country that includes numerous television stations, which function to reproduce sectarianism through whatever they cover.
Maya Majzoub, a television content producer, showcased her film Tuesday at LAU, which highlighted the pervasive sectarian narratives that are broadcast on Lebanese networks. While many of the country’s channels were launched during Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War, most didn’t gain legitimacy until they were legalized following the Taif Accord.
“I really wanted to critique Lebanon’s sectarian discourse,” she said, before screening her film. “Media ownership and political power are really intersecting here to reproduce sectarianism.”
While the Arab uprisings of 2011 were often credited to the younger generation’s savvy use of social media, conventional media continues to rein supreme. Dr. Melki noted that recent studies indicate that the majority of people living in the Arab world are unable to use new media and are highly susceptible to propaganda.
Then again, with the politics of fear, division, and authoritarianism still permeating many societies in the region, few, if any, citizens possess the freedom to openly challenge the status quo. That’s why MDLAB’s work is more important than ever. And despite the limitations, they continue to help Arab youth adopt a critical perspective to better navigate the ambivalent world around them.