Inside the Marine Corps’ newest doctrinal publication is a hint at a new initiative ― one focused on training the rank-and-file to be media literate.
The phrase “media literacy” appears six times in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 8 – Information, released in June. Robust training to this end is required, the document’s authors state, both to preserve force resiliency and to deny enemy influence attacks based on disinformation.
The document illustrates the power of media literacy in a page-long vignette describing the Myanmar military’s weaponization of propaganda on social and digital media against the domestic Muslim Rohingya population. These disinformation efforts included the creation of fake user accounts and celebrity pages to spread posts that promoted violence and falsely warned of impending attacks.
More recently, the Ukraine-Russia conflict has underscored the need to assess and interpret information effectively; both sides have used public statements and released photos and other media in attempts to influence public opinion and thus gain an advantage.
“No individual can fully know or understand the breadth of available information that amplifies cognitive shortcuts, biases, and assumptions,” the document states. “However, media literacy instills a necessary level of critical thinking in everyday interactions with digital and traditional news and information environments. Effective training in this area reduces Marines’ vulnerabilities to malign influence and supports force resiliency through unity of effort.”
How the Corps plans to provide this training, who will get it and what it will cover are open questions, however.
In a media roundtable ahead of MCDP-8′s release, deputy commandant for Information Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy described the training as something that would take place in a “school circle” with a squad or platoon of Marines following an exercise or other major training.
“There are the most powerful opportunities for leaders to instill in those Marines, not only lessons from the actions they’ve just taken, but really lessons in life,” Glavy said. “Marines, in the wake of those types of hard events are really kind of in this absorb mode … the mind is open to learning.”
Eric Schaner, a Marine Corps senior information and policy strategist who co-authored the document, made clear that this effort was in its nascent stages.
“More to follow on that, but it’s super important that our Marines are skilled in the use of social media and discerning and discerning what is fact from fiction,” he said.
In a follow-up conversation in July, officials told Marine Corps Times on background that Marine Corps Communication Strategy and Operations, which handles public affairs and media engagement, had been tasked with developing the training and that a planning team was being assembled to take the effort forward from there. Still to be determined, the officials said, was who would receive the training, how it would be administered and what it would cover.
The timeframe for fielding a training program or module also has yet to be determined.
While no other service has a formalized media literacy training program, officials noted that this initiative was not completely out of the blue. Multiple previous iterations of the defense budget bill have called on the Defense Department to furnish annual training to troops and civilians to make them resilient to disinformation and foreign influence.
The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2023 would expand annual cyber awareness training to include a digital literacy module regarding “digital citizenship, media literacy, and protection against cyber threats.”
The bill defines media literacy as the ability to do the following:
- Access relevant and accurate information through media in a variety of forms.
- Critically analyze media content and the influences of different forms of media/
- Evaluate the comprehensiveness, relevance, credibility, authority and accuracy of information.
- Make educated decisions based on information obtained from media and digital sources.
- Operate various forms of technology and digital tools.
- And reflect on how the use of media and technology may affect private and public.
That’s a pretty good starting point, according to Renee Hobbs, a leading scholar in the field of media literacy and professor at the University of Rhode Island. Hobbs spoke with Marine Corps Times via phone from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans while participating in a workshop for educators on propaganda.
A crucial aspect of media literacy, Hobbs said, was developing an understanding that public and media messages always are selective and incomplete.
Interpretation, she said, is likewise subjective. Thus, the task is more complex than sorting news reports and information sources into “good” and “bad.”
“In more democratic organizations, where people sit around a table, and can share opinions freely, we can learn to respect our differences,” she said. “And we can, in fact, benefit from hearing people who have very different interpretations from each other. Media literacy really cultivates respect for differences in multiperspectival thinking and respect for complexity.”
A “train-the-trainer” model works well for helping members of an organization become more media literate, she said, as it’s important for understanding and buy-in to develop at the top.
The principles of media literacy, she added, must be infused into all of training, rather than siloed into a single course or event. After all, Hobbs said, media literacy doesn’t just pertain to news articles or Facebook posts; even maps should be understood and interpreted based on what they include or leave out.
Where the Marine Corps might struggle to embrace media literacy as a perspective, Hobbs said, is where the police departments she has trained have also struggled: developing a culture of transparency where members have some freedom to share their own points of view.
“Talking about how media messages are selective and incomplete also means recognizing that the media messages that our leaders provide to us are selective and incomplete,” she said. “And so the implications of that big media literacy concept is complicated in hierarchical organizations sometimes.”
Despite the difficulty, she said, media literacy can contribute to greater combat effectiveness. Media-literate Marines will be more attuned to which media messages are designed to trigger emotions and bypass critical thinking.
And. she added, they can also better understand how others might interpret and respond to situations differently than they do.
“If I’m in Afghanistan, and I’m dealing with a local on the ground, I can be sensitive to the fact that his interpretation of a particular situation might be very different than mine, his interpretation of the symbolic environment might be very different than mine,” she said. “And I can be actually curious about that, and interested in that, and being able to use that tactically, to accomplish my strategic objectives.”