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A Materialist Guide to Media Literacy

Materialism: A Grounded Analysis

In exploring the notion of critical media literacy, the Marxist concepts of base and superstructure and Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony provide an essential framework for understanding the complex dynamics of media, power, and ideology. I’ve long engaged with these concepts frequently, not because I’m a broken record with only a single track working; it’s because these are part of the same source material and concepts that were ideologically foundational to Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, and many of my own foundational intellectuals. A necessity of our political education and study has to be not only adequately developing political analyses of the world around us, but also developing ourselves ideologically. In other words, locating rigorous, scientific and historical analyses of the world that help unravel the very roots of our material realities, and can be built upon and scientifically advanced through circumstance and similarly rigorous study.

Karl Marx’s “base and superstructure” model is crucial for analyzing the relationship between the economic foundations of society (the base) and its corresponding cultural, legal, and political systems (the superstructure). That means that the base includes the means of production, all the things needed to produce capital such as factories, land, raw materials; and the relations of production, which is essentially the relationship between the workers and their bosses, between workers themselves, and between those who own the means of production and those who do not.

With this in mind, we can understand how throughout his famed 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,  Walter Rodney is able to so adequately and unambiguously diagnose the roots of European racism and ‘white superiority’ in the raw violence of slavery and colonialism. In Chapter 3 Rodney discusses the benefits Europe (and later the U.S.) derived from their relationship to Africa; how this relationship not only materially developed Europe’s capitalist system through colonialism and enslavement of Africans, but that it also by equal measures developed the beliefs and ideologies of Europeans, creating beliefs (superstructure) that reinforce the modes and means of production (base), colonialism and enslavement.

As Rodney puts it in quite clear terms:

“Since capitalism, like any other mode of production, is a total system which involves an ideological aspect, it is also necessary to focus on the effects of the ties with Africa on the development of ideas within the superstructure of European capitalist society. In that sphere, the most striking feature is undoubtedly the rise of racism as a widespread and deeply rooted element in European thought. The role of slavery in promoting racist prejudice and ideology has been carefully studied in certain situations, especially in the U.S.A. The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority, and when the colour and other physical traits of those peoples were quite different it was inevitable that the prejudice should take a racist form. Within Africa itself, the same can be said for the situation in the Cape Province of South Africa where white men were establishing military and social superiority over non-whites ever since 1650.”

Throughout the book, Rodney’s insightful use of the base and superstructure framework reveals the intricate interplay between the elements of Europe and Africa’s superstructures — religion, culture, law, administration, education, etc.  — and how they both reflect and shape the base of colonial exploitation and slavery. His approach does more than just apply Marx’s theory; it advances and specifies it to the material context of colonial exploitation, chattel slavery, and the African experience. By doing so Rodney demonstrates the adaptability of these core Marxist tenets to varied historical and geographical contexts, highlighting their enduring relevance, and most importantly he offers a masterclass in applying these methods of analysis to Africa and Africans.

In the realm of critical media literacy, applying a similarly adaptive and rigorous understanding of the base/superstructure model is invaluable. This approach allows us to dissect the complex nature and function of media in its myriad forms. Media includes but is not limited to journalism, television and film, music, social and digital content, advertisements, and so forth. By understanding how economic and power structures shape media narratives, we can develop a more nuanced critique and understanding of not only contemporary media practices, but the media itself, as an element of the superstructure, and thus reflective of our current iteration of colonial-capitalism.

Having this model as our underlying, even if unspoken, ideological basis enables us to see beyond surface-level criticism and state-sanctioned analyses, discern deeper economic, political, and ideological motivations shaping media production and distribution, and connect our examinations to tangible demands and organizing. Also important to note: our aim in understanding contemporary media should not be mere dogmatic proliferation of analysis for its own sake. Instead, again emulating Rodney’s approach, in understanding that it’s not about replicating past contexts or clinging to outdated modes of thinking in a world awash with consistently revolutionizing technologies and media forms.

A robust materialist analysis recognizes the uniqueness of each historical and material context, and thus our task is simple—developing contextually relevant, materially useful political and ideological analyses, in the service of Black liberation.

Media, Cultural Norms, Hegemony

Amid the incessant flood of media and “content” that saturates our daily lives, particularly through almost completely privatized and controlled information channels, possessing a sound ideological grounding becomes essential. It empowers us to navigate the deluge of information and discern the underlying forces shaping it, and to consume media critically. Perhaps most important, when we have a full understanding of the function of media, we can then recognize and challenge the ideological narratives and their material consequences which are often both invisibly woven into the media landscape.

Media is not merely a vehicle for information dissemination but a potent force in shaping societal norms, political perspectives, and cultural ideologies. Patterns of consumption, political (non)activity, cultural communication, and mass consent are all manufactured in part by the relationship between the masses and the media. This is evident in the way mainstream (corporate-funded) media often aligns with and propagates the narratives beneficial to the capitalist system, a phenomenon astutely noted by scholar Michael Parenti when he describes the media’s role in his book 1992 Inventing Reality. He opens the chapter establishing that “no communication system can report everything that happens in public life,”  and therefore the very ‘nature’ of “selectivity is conducive to a measure of bias.”

Parenti later elaborates how certain core practices and tenets of Western capitalist media intentionally obscure and malign anything which would ideological undermine the imperialist system. These practices include the appearance of “objectivity” and neutrality in reporting, face value framing, and “both sides” reporting, all which work to reinforce the economic base of capitalist labor relations and imperialist exploitation, including whatever other social schemas maintain this base. Parenti uses the biased imperialist reporting on socialist and leftist revolutionary struggles as an example of this:

Favorable stories about socialist or emerging leftist revolutionary economies are not assigned by editors nor tolerated by media executives and owners. The suppression of positive news from socialist countries is so persistent and pervasive as to suggest that something more than insufficiencies in foreign coverage, lackadaisical journalists, and space limitations are at the heart of the matter. When we see that news selectivity is likely to be on the side of those who have power, position, and wealth, we move from a liberal complaint about the press’s poor job to a radical analysis of how the press fulfills its system-supporting function.

Sometimes omissions and suppressions are not enough and the press lends itself to the dissemination of outright lies. One way to lie is to accept at face value what are known to be lies, passing them on to the public without adequate countervailing response. Face-value framing has characterized the press’s performance from the McCarthy era down to more recent times, including most everything the government says about Nicaragua, the Soviets, yellow rain, Grenada, KGB “penetration,” civil rights, labor disputes, or whatever. Without ever saying a particular story is true or not, but treating it at face value, the press engages in the propagation of misinformation-while maintaining the myth that they are merely noncommittal and objective. When challenged on this, some reporters will argue that they cannot inject their own personal judgments into their reports, an argument that overlooks the fact that they are not being asked to-and, in any case, often already do so. My criticism is that they (or their editors and owners) fail to do what they claim they do, give us a range of information and views that might allow us to form opinions contrary to the ones that permeate their news reports.”

This could explain in part the onslaught of Zionist propaganda, and at times outright lies, in virtually all corporate media since the October 7th Al-Aqsa Flood Operation in Occupied Palestine.

Italian political prisoner and Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is one relevant figure who greatly expanded on and crystalized these ideas, particularly through his concept of cultural hegemony. In short, cultural hegemony emphasizes how the ruling class uses cultural institutions, including media, to maintain its dominance. Gramsci argued that this hegemony is established not just through direct coercion, but by shaping the collective consciousness in a way that the worldview of the ruling class becomes the norm, ‘natural’, and ‘common sense’. This process is subtle, yet its impact is profound. Gramsci explains this by relying on the Marxist conceptions, “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”

While most traditional Marxists argued that economics is the sole determinant for maintaining capitalist modes of production, Gramsci rejected this premise, and argued that ideology was a site of struggle independent – or interdependent – of economic determinism. This is a position similar to Walter Rodney’s, and it suggests that while economics may certainly be the underriding determinant of the capitalist system, at times the superstructural elements may be a more powerful motive and drive the base. Rodney evidenced this with the advent of racism as it relates to slavery, stating that at some points within the history of Africa’s underdevelopment, the vicious racism of Europe determined that it would be raw, violent, direct colonialism as their mode of exploitation.

Gramsci similarly viewed ideology in such a way that infused Marxism with a particular humanism, focusing on human struggle, subjectivity, and transformation through counter-hegemonic organizing. This means that while Gramsci agrees with Marx that whichever class is the ruling class will determine the superstructure and mental production, but that “common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself.” While the dominant class owns the means of communication and information within a society, and is therefore able to project its own ‘common sense’ and cultural norms onto the masses, this relationship for Gramsci should not be viewed as static, rather as a site of exquisite and necessary struggle.

Relevance: contemporary media as psychological and information warfare

I would like to note that I don’t like to use the common phrase “Mainstream Media”, at least not without certain qualifiers, and prefer “Corporate Media”, “Capitalist Media”, or “Colonial Media.” This is mainly because, in the postdigital age, ample so-called “Independent Media” exists that also espouses a nonstop stream of capitalist, imperialist, or otherwise escapist counter-insurgent propaganda. For this reason, I only sparingly use “Mainstream Media” for rhetorical purposes at times, and otherwise interchange Corporate/Capitalist/Colonial Media depending on context. My use of ‘media’ extends to all arms of the state and their proxies that operate as information disseminating wings of a larger state apparatus.

The dynamic interplay between “Funding and Commercial Interests” and “Independent vs. Mainstream Media” serves as a clear illustration of the base/superstructure relationship. The economic interests of the colonial-capitalist system (the base) directly influence mainstream media, dictating content that supports and perpetuates these interests. This dynamic is crucial for understanding how and why media narratives are crafted and disseminated, virtually always aligning with the economic and political agendas of those in power.

This relationship boils down in its rawest form to one between the interests of capital, power, and the means of propaganda. We don’t need to look far back for an example of this relationship, and instead can simply reference the onslaught of Zionist propaganda all around. This calculated machinery of Zionist propaganda is not merely about drowning out Palestinian voices; it’s a sophisticated campaign that strategically manipulates facts, exploits existing implicit biases, and crafts narratives to justify and normalize a terrifyingly violent, genocidal ethnic cleansing rampage. The corporate media, often complicit in this machinery, plays a pivotal role by disseminating these narratives to a global audience, lending their perceived ‘credibility’ to claims which usually have no factual, legal, or logical basis whatsoever. This is not just a ‘failure of journalistic integrity’, as they try to write-off each of their propaganda mishaps with quick “apologies” between the weather; it’s an active participation in a propaganda campaign that seeks to shape public opinion in favor of an apartheid settler state, which exists as a neo-colonial outpost for the West.

The urgency of the primary contradiction – settler-colonialism, AKA the land — does not disappear simply because we are analyzing the media. To the contrary, the Capitalist-Colonial Media is both a reflective mirror and a tool of the economic base.

The speed and efficiency with which the colonizer’s narratives are propagated reveal a well-oiled system of disseminating misinformation. For instance, in the wake of the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, numerous unsubstantiated claims were rapidly circulated by Corporate media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, as well as outlets like The Hill, New York Times, Reuters, Financial Times, and the BBC. Across the mainstream liberal-conservative political spectrum, corporate media was deeply invested within the first 24 hours in presenting the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation as a wanton act of “terrorism”, inexplicable and devoid of any context, attaching the name “Hamas” to the worst, unimaginable — and unverified — acts thinkable.

All of this was not random, nor simply the actions of a media apparatus practicing “journalistic malpractice” across the board: it was the strategic and calculated narrative which de facto any and all Zionist military actions against Palestinians henceforth as “defensive” responses to a seemingly “unprovoked” aggression, justifying their actions by any means. This narrative framework effectively inverts the reality of the situation, painting the aggressor as the victim and the actual victims as the aggressors. This distortion of reality is a deliberate attempt to mold public perception in a way that supports ongoing colonial ambitions, and suppresses any outcry against injustices by tacitly aligning them with “terrorism” and so-called “terrorists.”

As previously stated, the base/superstructure relationship in regards to media is one between the interests of capital, power, and the means of disseminating propaganda. The Zionist forces are only able to mobilize dominant narratives so quickly because they participate in the ownership of the very means of distributing information, from political influence over the regulation of capitalist media, to vested stock within corporate media platforms, and everything in between. The zionist can launch rapid-fire media disinformation campaigns because they, at least in part, own the means of producing and disseminating information. This again illuminate the economic base dictating the superstructure.

Moreover, the impact of such propaganda efforts extends far beyond the immediate conflict. It plays a crucial role in maintaining the global status quo, where imperialist powers are consistently portrayed as bearers of civilization, so called “human rights” and order, and alleged democracy, while those they oppress are dehumanized and vilified, their oppression justified. This narrative serves to justify not only the current conflict but also future aggressions and occupations under the guise of self-defense and the spread of democracy. Moreover, the propaganda efforts are for the purpose of providing cover for, or justifying, the extractive, repressive, and exploitative means of imperialist extraction — the base.

How The Economic Base Shapes Media Literacy

Another critical angle to consider is how media systems, especially in capitalist societies, tend to very intentionally exploit and perpetuate the illiteracy of the masses. Unlike socialist countries like Cuba and Nicaragua, where literacy and education for all citizens are prioritized and celebrated as keystones of societal development, many capitalist nations like the U.S. demonstrate a troubling indifference towards the issue of widespread literacy. In these environments, abysmal literacy rates and low reading levels are not just incidental shortcomings but are often a byproduct of systemic neglect and organized abandonment. This lack of emphasis on literacy serves a dual purpose: it maintains a status quo where a significant portion of the population is disempowered and deeply uninformed due to inadequate education, and it creates a fertile ground for media outlets and the political class to disseminate information that goes largely unchallenged by a less critically literate audience. This dynamic forms a dialectical relationship with the media, where the media as an information arm of the State both feeds on and fuels the literacy gap.

The relationship between media literacy and educational priorities in capitalist versus socialist countries, like the United States and Cuba, is starkly contrasting and deeply indicative of their respective societal values and economic base. Cuba, ranked fifth globally in literacy according to the CIA Factbook and UNESCO, presents a remarkable case of prioritizing education. In 1960, facing a literacy rate of just 23%, Cuba launched a massive literacy campaign, mobilizing over 100,000 young students as voluntary literacy teachers. This ambitious effort, which included a diverse group of participants including retired teachers, housewives, and urban workers, led to over 707,000 Cubans learning to read and write in just one year, a feat acknowledged and celebrated globally​​​​​​​​.

Contrast this with the United States, where the corporate media plays a significant role in actively maintaining a level of public illiteracy, especially about both international and domestic socio-political realities. This is coupled with the abysmal state of the domestic education system within the U.S., where profit, privatization, and ‘No Child Left Behind’ schemas have combined to create a system which systematically devalues and exploits teachers, devalues and dehumanizes students, and does not fully teach them critical thinking skills nor culturally relevant information. Many school districts across the country, including individual teachers and administrators, have been scandalized after being found guilty of falsifying student grade records on a mass scale. This practice is indicative of larger systemic issues in the U.S. education system, which is driven more by performance metrics, standardized testing from private corporations, and then criminalization of the teachers trying to navigate such a system, rather than genuine learning​​. 

This difference in approach to education and media’s role in it reveals a deeper ideological divide: socialist countries like Cuba prioritize broad-based education as a tool for empowerment and societal advancement, while capitalist societies often use media to perpetuate a certain level of ignorance and passivity among the public, aligning with the interests of those in power. This again can be partially explained by examining the economic base behind superstructural elements of education and media: within a socialist state, the workers themselves are largely responsible for and in control of production, which means that an educated, literate working class is completely vital for that state’s development. Under capitalism, however, workers are seen as tools to be exploited, and the capitalist class is able to exploit us and labor abroad further if we are less politically and socially aware, thus creating an impetus for continued mental and educational underdevelopment. 

In socialist societies like Cuba, where literacy campaigns have been historically aggressive and incredibly successful, the population is better equipped to engage with and critically analyze media content. Information about the social and political situations in other countries, for example, is digested with a critical lens, compared against different sources, and healthy speculation and investigation is a common part of the Cuban media environment. This contrastingly high level of literacy fosters a more informed and questioning audience, which in turn demands a higher standard of journalism and media accountability. Conversely, in capitalist nations and others with lower literacy rates, the media fully exploits this gap by promoting simplified, sensationalist content designed for mass appeal and entertainment rather than informative value. This approach has been coined “info-tainment” by some, and not only fails to challenge the audience intellectually, but actively preys on the lack of critical media literacy, reinforcing a cycle of misinformation and miseducation. Thus, the relationship between media and literacy in capitalist societies reveals a deliberate strategy to keep the population disengaged and less capable of critical analysis, serving the interests of those in power. In this regard then, we can see Corporate media and its associated realms as psychological and information warfare, as they are engaged in an intentional project of keeping worker consciousness below a certain threshold. 

Again, it is hard to look at the comparative data and analyses around media literacy and general literacy rates without further elucidating this dynamic, and holding our engorged corporate media apparatus at fault even partially. Juxtaposed with the U.S. economic and political stature, the literacy rates show a discrepancy between the potential for critical media engagement and the reality of media literacy levels among the population. The numbers indicate a gap in media literacy and media literacy education, which has implications for how individuals interpret and engage with media content, as well as the lengths of unassumed influence that that media content can have on an individual. Disparities in media literacy among different demographics highlight the unequal distribution of these basic but critical skills. Factors such as class, race, and access to technology all significantly influence an individual’s ability to effectively navigate and critically assess media content. This discrepancy points to the need for more comprehensive and inclusive media literacy education, as emphasized by scholars like Dr. Jared Ball, who on Black Power Media frequently advocates for a deeper understanding of the media’s role in perpetuating the myths that reinforce systemic inequalities.

The Al-Aqsa Flood Operation serves as just one example that starkly illustrates the power of media in shaping narratives and consent, as well as the urgent need for critical media literacy. The multifaceted Corporate Media campaigns against movements like the Black Panther Party, and the demonization of countries such as Cuba, similarly exemplify how media can be employed as a tool of psychological warfare. In the case of the Black Panther Party, the media played a pivotal role in shaping public perception against the Panthers, often portraying the organization as an aimlessly violent and dangerous group, acting without any legitimate motivations, thus legitimizing the U.S. government’s brutal, murderous counter-insurgency measures against them. This narrative served to obscure the Party’s actual agenda, which focused on community service, self-defense, socialism, internationalism, and combating racism. The distortion of their image in the public eye facilitated a broad acceptance of the harsh crackdowns by law enforcement, which resulted in the death or imprisonment of countless Panthers. As the Panthers popularized “OFF THE PIGS” as a slogan through their organizing and cultural work, the Colonial Media conversely popularized the phrase “Cop Killer” in response; a reflection of the dialectical nature, as police unions represented a large financial influence within all of this. This process of demonization and state-sanction war against the Black Panther Party is a clear illustration of how media narratives are weaponized to wage psychological warfare, turning public opinion against legitimate social movements to justify and manufacture consent for state violence.

Similarly, the case of Cuba illustrates how media narratives are a manipulation tool to serve geopolitical interests. Despite Cuba’s significant contributions to African liberation, healthcare, and education globally, it has often been portrayed in Western media as a totalitarian regime, and even more so with its inclusion on the U.S.’s “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list since 2021. This portrayal stands in stark contrast to its actual role in providing humanitarian aid, education, public health infrastructure, and doctors across the world, and not the mention its long history of supporting liberation movements across the globe with thousands of soldiers, weaponry, and support in various ways. The U.S.-imposed blockade, often justified by the bogus, baseless negative media portrayals, has further perpetuated the image of Cuba as a “pariah state”, even despite the reality that it has diplomatic, economic, or political relations with nearly every country on Earth. This relentless demonization campaign comes from U.S. politicians, Corporate Media and media pundits, and even gusano Cubans in Miami, and not only attempts to isolate Cuba economically and politically, but serves as a form of psychological warfare, aiming to undermine its international standing and suppress the recognition of its positive contributions to global welfare. Like in the case of Palestinian resistance or Black Panthers, the Western Colonial Media will never promote any narrative which undermines the U.S. imperialist blockade of Cuba, because it is determined by the (imperialist) economic base. These examples demonstrate the power of media narratives in shaping public perception and policy, at the cost of truth and in service of imperialist political agendas.

What we should understand, then, is that no piece of media makes it onto the television, theater, or phone screens unintentionally. Whether it is an editorial board filled with members of weapons manufacturing corporations, or Atlantic Council and Pentagon heavy hands within a Hollywood project, or simply the algorithm promoting counter-revolutionary and socially backward content streams, we are utterly saturated with a media apparatus that reinforces the exploitative capitalist base from every angle. This apparatus preys on the reality of mass media illiteracy facing the working class, while also creating ‘controlled opposition’ counter-narratives that still maintain the imperialist status quo, even while perhaps appearing ‘alternative’ in nature. Some examples of this are Vice News, Jacobin, and Vox, which both parade and pride themselves as ‘alternative’ news outlets of sorts, poaching pieces of leftist rhetoric in their work, while ultimately always serving the interests of Western capital in their reporting.

By understanding and challenging the biased narratives propagated by mainstream media, individuals and communities can resist the psychological warfare waged by powerful entities and contribute to the creation of a more just and equitable world.

Conclusion — Critical media literacy as a site of struggle

Understanding the role of media as a part of the larger ideological apparatus that serves to uphold the existing socio-economic structures is essential. This comprehensive perspective enables individuals to critically evaluate media content, recognizing its underlying influences and biases, and fosters a more informed and nuanced understanding of the media landscape.

It is imperative that we as organizers, educated, and generally ‘conscious’ individuals take up the mission of spreading media literacy among our people. To combat the pervasive influence of capitalist media narratives and psychological warfare, it is crucial to equip the masses with basic skills in media literacy, which begins with an understanding of the base/superstructure model, but extends further into practical literacy skills. Media literacy empowers individuals to critically analyze media content, helping them to discern truth from manipulation, to view themselves as capable of playing an active role within shaping popular narratives, and to better organize and digest relevant information.

Here are four key aspects of media literacy and their significance:

  1. Analyze the source. The first basic skill in media literacy involves analyzing the source of the material. This means scrutinizing who produced the content, understanding their background, assessing their potential biases or interests, and even examining their intended audience. For instance, a news article published by a media outlet owned by a large corporation may have different editorial slants compared to an independent source; MSNBC and Black Power Media, for example, could both report on Black uprisings in Atlanta against Cop City, and produce two wildly different reports. This difference often reflects the corporate interests behind such outlets, which might influence the kind of stories they publish or omit; in the case of Cop City, the same corporate donors behind MSNBC are behind Cop City, such as Cox Enterprises. By teaching people to critically evaluate the source of information, we empower them to discern the possible motives and biases behind the content they consume.
  2. Financial or profit motives. Another fundamental aspect of media literacy is understanding the financial and profit motives behind certain reporting. Commercial media outlets are driven by profit, which can influence their content in both subtle and overt ways. For example, news stories might be sensationalized to attract more viewers or readers, as higher viewership equates to more advertising revenue, all at the expense of reporting the truth. Additionally, stories that could potentially harm the interests of advertisers may be downplayed or completely ignored; thousands of Jewish individuals have been arrested since the October 7th Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, for example, while protesting and calling for a ceasefire, yet you would hardly know that based on corporate media’s near silence in covering this. Teaching people to recognize these profit motives helps them understand why certain stories get more attention than others, why certain angles are pushed almost exclusively by outlets, and why some issues are consistently mis- and under-reported.
  3. Acknowledge the framing. A third crucial skill is the ability to identify and analyze framing in media content. Framing refers to the way information is presented to the audience, the “angle” of the story, and it can significantly influence how the audience interprets that information. For instance, the framing of political protests as ‘riots’ versus ‘demonstrations’ or ‘uprisings’ can drastically change the public’s perception of those events. Think of how many stories have come out since October 7th that frame Israeli children as ‘children’, or ‘kids’, while Palestinian children are labeled as “Palestinians under 18”, or in some cases, simply not mentioned at all. Consider that mug shots of Black people are plastered across every local news station in the U.S. every night for petty crimes, yet when white criminals such as school shooters are covered, we’re shown pictures of them smiling, or even riding jet skis with their families. Even the subtle differences between using active or passive language, for example, can greatly frame perception around a story. By educating the masses on how to identify different methods of framing, they can better understand how their perceptions and opinions are being shaped by the media they consume.
  4. Question everything. Encouraging critical thinking and questioning of information is a vital component of media literacy, serving as a powerful tool against the uncritical consumption of media content. This skill involves a deeper engagement with the information presented, urging individuals to not take it at face value but to actively interrogate it. Questions like “What is the purpose of this message?”, “What information might be missing?”, and “How does this message make me feel and why?” are essential in this process. For instance, when mainstream media outlets predominantly portray certain ethnic or social groups in a negative light, such as the case of ‘all Palestinians are terrorists’ or ‘all Black people are criminal’, it’s imperative to question the intent and implications of such portrayals. Why are these groups depicted this way? Who benefits from this narrative? What stereotypes or biases are being reinforced?
    • This form of critical thinking is not solely related to news media, and is in fact a much-needed skill that extends to understanding the broader context in which information is presented. It involves recognizing the potential agenda behind a news story or article, or a piece of media from The Real Housewives to a Marvel film, and forces one to consider the societal, political, and economic factors that might influence it. This skill is particularly crucial in an era of both polarized and hyper-personalized media, where information is often tailored by algorithms to reinforce existing beliefs rather than to inform or challenge. By fostering critical thinking, individuals can learn to identify and challenge these biases, seeking a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of the issues at hand.
  5. Diversify YOUR sources. Diversifying the sources from which we receive news is a fundamental aspect of media literacy. In today’s ‘mainstream’ media landscape, with the most highly-resourced and visible outlets being dominated by a few major conglomerates, the risk of encountering a homogenized, one-dimensional perspective on world events is high. Consuming news from a variety of sources, including independent and international outlets, offers a broader, more nuanced understanding of current events. For instance, a political event covered by a major U.S. news network might focus on aspects different from those highlighted by a local news source or an international outlet; even among ‘the left’, strains like Jacobin or CPUSA tend to repeat left-ish version of the same talking points put out by Pentagon mouthpieces, and this illustrates that the only way to fully understand an issue is to read a variety of outlets. This diversity in coverage helps to break down the echo chambers often created by mainstream media, and can also break one from within an algorithmic bubble, enabling individuals to see beyond a singular narrative and understand the complexity and multiplicity of perspectives that exist. Moreover, it challenges the dominant narratives that might be shaped by imperialist interests and colonial biases, fostering an internationalist and inclusive understanding of events.

Additionally, accessing a variety of news sources is crucial in an era of increasing misinformation and propaganda. Different sources can provide contrasting viewpoints and additional context, which is vital for verifying the accuracy of information. For example, during a humanitarian crisis, mainstream media might prioritize governmental or official sources, whereas independent media might offer insights from the ground, including voices of directly impacted communities. Recall during Hurricane Katrina, for example, when mainstream media across the board decided to refer to stranded residents as “criminals” engaged in “looting” as they sought items for their survival, in the face of government abandonment. Having a variety of reporting helps in cross-referencing facts and gaining a more comprehensive picture of the situation. It can also help foster critical thinking, as it requires individuals to actively compare and contrast different viewpoints, question biases, and form their own informed opinions. In this way, diversifying news sources is not just about being better informed; it’s about actively participating in a process of contributing to a more informed and engaged society, which can only fully happen within the guidance of revolutionary grassroots organization. One benefit of being in an organization and being engaged in community building and organizing, is that you have a group of individuals who can collectively critically analyze, discuss, and provide new perspectives on media items.

In synthesizing the themes of this comprehensive analysis of media within the capitalist superstructure, it becomes evident that critical media literacy is not merely an educational tool, but a fundamental component of social and political empowerment. The stark disparities in media literacy and the intentional perpetuation of illiteracy in capitalist societies, as contrasted with the educational achievements in socialist countries like Cuba, underscore the significant role media plays in shaping societal norms and public perception. It also shows that for the oppressed, literacy and education remain crucial to our own liberation, and is in direct opposition to capitalist schemes of mental underdevelopment. The capitalist media’s manipulation of narratives to uphold the interests of the powerful is a clear demonstration of the need for communities that are not only literate, but are constantly critically engaged with the media they consume.

This critical engagement with media is essential for challenging the status quo and fostering radical change. By equipping individuals with the skills to discern and deconstruct media narratives, we enable them to see beyond the surface-level information and understand the deeper economic, political, and ideological motivations at play. This understanding is crucial in the fight against propaganda, misinformation, and the psychological warfare waged by capitalist media, and is conversely crucial in our work towards creating political education and propaganda within our own ranks. It is through understanding the base/superstructure relationship that individuals can begin to dismantle the oppressive narratives and institutions that perpetuate systemic inequalities and, in doing so, contribute to organizing for a more just, socialist world.

Ultimately, the pursuit of critical media literacy transcends individual enlightenment; it is a collective struggle against the dominant capitalist forces that seek to control information, to legitimize and maintain their power. By fostering a society where individuals are not only informed but also critically aware of the information they consume, we lay the groundwork for a more equitable engagement with society. The path to liberation and societal transformation is, therefore, inextricably linked to the struggles for literacy, critical media literacy, and political education, making it a pivotal arena for challenging and reshaping the narratives that define our world.

More from this Writer

Musa is a cultural worker, community organizer, and independent researcher. They are a member of the Walter Rodney Foundation, and host of the Groundings podcast.

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