‘Media Literacy’ and ‘Digital Citizenship’: Smuggling Censorship and Indoctrination Into Schools

Some of the censorship industry’s leading organizations are using public concern over kids’ online browsing habits to install themselves as gatekeepers to the minds of America’s K-12 students, determining what sources and viewpoints they should be exposed to, and what should be hidden from view. 

Screen usage among kids and adolescents is at an all-time high, and many parents are concerned about the effect that screen time is having on their children. This has led to a flurry of legislation at the state level to teach kids “healthy” online browsing habits.

These are typically grouped under the labels of “media literacy” or “digital citizenship.” Media Literacy Now, a grassroots organization lobbying state legislatures to mandate media literacy education in schools, describes media literacy as ensuring students “know how to consume and evaluate information, ask critical questions, avoid manipulation, and engage in digital spaces safely.”

Over a dozen states, including California, Texas, Utah, Delaware, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Florida now require some kind of media literacy or “digital citizenship” education in schools.

But while the public concern is bipartisan and non-ideological, many of the organizations currently advertising themselves as solutions to the problem are not. 

Here is a small selection of some of the organizations hiding a partisan agenda of political censorship behind the “media literacy” label: 

  • The Institute for Strategic Dialogue: a global nonprofit at the forefront of efforts to censor “hate” and “disinformation,” ISD conflates populism – a political movement whose leading figures include Donald Trump – with extremism. ISD has described skepticism of climate change and COVID policies as “misinformation” that ought to be censored. In testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, independent journalist and bestselling author Michael Shellenberger claims the organization directly targeted him for censorship. The nonprofit now wants to teach media literacy to schoolchildren through its Be Internet Citizens Initiative, which is – like the SPLC’s curriculum – recommended as a media literacy teaching resource by California’s department of education. 

In practice, most school-approved “media literacy” curricula seem to instruct students to distrust any source or narrative that isn’t establishment-approved. One media literacy curriculum promoted by the California Department of Education advises students to rely on “fact checkers” with a history of partisan bias in one lesson, and in another nudges students to discount critiques of progressive arguments on climate change by questioning the argument’s source. One teacher in Rhode Island voiced concerns that a DHS-funded “media literacy” training program for K-12 teachers was “hyper focused” on Donald Trump.

Newsela – A Media Literacy Behemoth 

Founded in 2013, education-tech startup Newsela was an early mover in media literacy. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the political establishment and its allies in the media whipped up a panic about “fake news” — an early version of the “disinformation” issue that would serve as a pretext for online censorship.

In January 2017, just a few months after “fake news” became a national issue, Newsela was marketing itself as a teaching resource to teach kids what online information sources to distrust. Newsela is also a partner of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which relentlessly pushes for the suppression of domestic political speech on social media platforms.

Newsela has benefited enormously by positioning itself as a middleman between kids and the internet. It made Deloitte’s list of the top 500 fastest-growing tech companies two years in a row, with 520 percent revenue growth in 2019.

Newsela boasts that 2 million teachers and 90 percent of American schools have used its content:

Newsela ELA, Newsela Social Studies, and Newsela Science take authentic, real-world content from the most trusted providers in the world, and make it ready for use in those classrooms.

Over two million teachers already rely on Newsela for fresh, always up-to-date content that engages students on topics they care about and adjusts reading levels based on individual students’ needs.

We’ve delivered content to 90% of U.S. schools that both teachers and students are wildly excited about. With these new products, teachers can always have the perfect text or unit at their fingertips to support the standards they’re covering that day, on a platform they already love using,” said [Newsela CEO Matthew] Gross.

Newsela recently became the subject of controversy due to an undercover investigation by Accuracy in Media, which caught teachers on camera discussing how Newsela could be used to smuggle partisan ideologies like the critical race theory-informed 1619 project into classrooms and teaching assignments against the wishes of parents and state policymakers.

Via Accuracy in Media:

As AIM noted, Newsela declares on its website that it is an official partner of Teaching Tolerance (now known as Learning for Justice), the Southern Poverty Law Center’s media literacy course.

Via Newsela:

Many lessons are grounded in the work of our partner Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center whose mission is to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy. We’ve paired their lessons with authentic, engaging content from real-world sources that bring concepts of anti-bias and social justice to life. Additionally, our team of curriculum developers and content producers author and review all content against the Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias framework which include four domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice and and Action.

The censorship industry has gained a major foothold in American schools — and state policymakers may be unknowingly helping them by failing to scrutinize some of the organizations and companies stressing the importance of “media literacy” and “digital citizenship” lessons for K-12 kids.

For a convenient overview of the media literacy issue, click here to access FFO’s two-page briefing