AFTER the year-long inquiry into fake news, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee released its report yesterday. Among the suite of recommendations including a compulsory code of ethics for tech companies and the reform of current electoral laws, the MPs have called for stricter regulation of Facebook to quell the spread of disinformation.

While the drivers of the report were noble, I am not convinced the recommendations are enough to combat the growing problem of junk information and our inability to sift it out. The problem here is way bigger than Facebook. It’s way bigger than any social media platform currently or in the future. The problem here is a lack of media literacy skills. Please note that I do not say this to be patronising to the public: it is hard to be media literate in 2019. There are so many factors hindering all of us, preventing us from knowing what we need to know to be informed citizens.

In The State University and The University of Hong Kong’s media literacy course, they outline four challenges to being digitally literate citizens. First, there is the sheer volume of information we have to contend with now everyone is a potential content producer as well as a consumer; second is the ease at which we can create and disseminate information regardless of its objective truth in the content creators and motivations.

A third is a trade-off between being first to publish and being the most accurate, and fourth is how easy it is to ensconce ourselves in a filter bubble that only reflects our views. That’s all before we even get to what sort of information is coursing through the social media landscape, who is its author, and who benefits most from its spread.

We’re all used to hearing the Trumpian term fake news – but true to his general oeuvre – this is a simplification. These two almost comical worlds are a crude rendering of the challenge facings citizens today. Their information diets are packed full of nutritionally questionable content daily. The Council of Europe’s Information Disorder report categories this in three ways: misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.

Disinformation is deliberately created to harm a person or group. Misinformation is false but not intended to cause harm. Malinformation is this is based in reality but is not intended to cause any mischief.

The distinction between each type matters because we are dealing with – and often unwittingly contributing to – these things all the time without even realising it.

Just yesterday, I was sent a video on social media authored by In the Now. The person who sent it to me cited it as being a great informational source on a subject they didn’t know enough about. What frightened me most was that this person seemed to have no idea that In the Now is a social media product of the Kremlin-sponsored Russia Today. It’s cleverly designed to look rather like Now This, most likely to hide its origins and to into appeal to a millennial audience. Today, their page has been blocked by Facebook for failing to disclose that they are funded by the Russian government. They would not have had the reach or influence they had amassed if citizens knew what was shaping the news.

I’ve been watching with interest as new means of tackling the problem appear. Most recently, I’ve been playing around with Newsguard, a browser plugin that gives each media a “nutrition label” warning the user about the quality of its content. I recommend everyone give it a shot.

I also believe in the vitally important work fact checkers – but ultimately I don’t think a single tool or technical intervention is going to address the problem adequately. The people who install a tool like that or who seek out the fact-checks are not the people who are likely to be most susceptible to or impacted by bad information.

In addition to tools and technical interventions what we need is mass media literacy education. If citizens don’t innately understand how to sniff out the good information or how to outmanoeuvre the bad stuff, then civil society will cease to function as it should. The implications for democracy are profound, as we’re already seeing with Brexit and the rise of populism around the globe.

Fundamentally, this problem needs to be tackled at the root. We need courses in media literacy in schools, and not just as an optional extra for those that take media, politics or modern studies. Our information diet consists overwhelmingly of things we’ve imbibed online and on social media, often without giving it too much thought. We need to know if what we’ve taken in is good for us.

Whether we like it or not, we are all digital citizens now. It’s not an option to opt out of life online because the offline world is shaped by it. Social media has changed the media landscape forever. Instead of giving people the tools that do the hard work on their behalf, we need to teach children about information quality and how to close read the news. By read, I don’t mean follow along with the words and form an opinion afterwards. All readers need to be able to discern opinion from fact, to spot agendas and ulterior motives, to identify their biases and the biases of others. Everyone needs to understand standards of evidence, accuracy, impartiality and reliability of information.

The news only works for the people if the people can tell what news is and why it is relevant to them and their lives. Regulation of tech giants alone will not combat the scourge of bad information. It’s time for education policy to define a base level of media literacy and make it attainable for everybody.