"The use of education for the political agenda is somewhat opportunistic"

Luís António Santos is the guest on the 32nd episode of the Isto Não é Pera Doce Podcast! A journalist for over a decade, the professor of Communication Sciences at the University of Minho reflected on the state of journalism in Portugal, in contrast to the theme of Education.

"The use of education for the political agenda is somewhat opportunistic"
Fígura de ondas técnologicas azul

Between current news, topics on the media agenda, the consequences of Covid for students and misinformation, this episode will leave you reflecting on the type of information we are consuming. Watch the conversation in full:

«Education is on the media agenda for the worst reasons»

Education is an issue that naturally affects the whole population. The elderly, because their grandchildren will be in the system; people of working age, because they will naturally have children who will be in the system; and the young, because they are part of the system. But is education at the top of the political and media agenda? 

According to Professor Luís, there are moments when education is on the agenda. At a time close to an election period, there is sometimes an exploitation of the issue for the political agenda, perhaps with an opportunistic tone. Or when there are shortcomings in the system.

I think [education], like other issues, comes and goes. Now it seems to me that as we approach an election period, for example, education is one of the issues that starts to attract interest again. Either because the party in power wants to show what it has done, or because the opposition parties want to show what the party in power hasn't done. (...) It's of enormous interest from an electoral point of view. And so the use of education for the political agenda is sometimes a bit opportunistic, it's true, but it does mean that education issues get on the agenda. When do education issues get on the agenda? When the system fails. In other words, what I'm trying to say here is that in many circumstances education is on the media agenda for the worst reasons.

Is the population aware of such questions and issues? For Luís Santos, people discuss things at the level of their immediate interest, in the world in which they can act. When they can no longer influence it, they let others get involved.  During the pandemic, for example, schools were closed. This was a decision that could have generated more of a response at the time. Civil society could have been more willing to discuss it. It was felt politically, but politically it's not the crux of the matter.

But I also agree that perhaps, in the aftermath of the pandemic, there could have been more thoughtful reflection on what happened to us, what it did to the system, how we are actually doing, and what steps we need to take to reactivate these students' relationship to learning in a group context. I'm now starting to meet some of these people at university and I feel that there are different things about them.

For a few years, we'll be saying that the pandemic is to blame for almost everything," says Professor Luís. The truth is that in some circumstances it will be, but we should be able to assess its concrete impact.

If we can't assess in concrete terms what the pandemic has had an impact on, because... I don't know, for example, if the pandemic has had more of an impact on formal learning - maths, Portuguese, science - or if it has had more of an impact on more fundamental things, like human relationships, people's confidence. Because my perception is that ultimately it has. I have students who perhaps have a bit more difficulty relating to others at the moment. They feel a lot more autonomous. Perhaps not in the best sense of the word, in the sense of being self-sufficient.

Students in higher education have different characteristics, as Professor Luís exemplifies: more autonomous, but perhaps not in a positive sense; self-sufficient, believing that they are enough to carry out certain tasks and challenges. Today, how can we mobilise or motivate young people towards these values, such as journalistic rigour, at a time when they are growing up much more attached to social networks, followers and a certain spectacle and immediacy?

«The level of demand isn't just for people with journalism degrees.»

Professor Luís António Santos believes that the issue is more complicated than we have presented. The question should be extended not only to journalism, but also to quality information. In other words, the need for even young students who have never had a professional relationship with journalism to be informed citizens. This need is vital today, given the vast amount of information we have access to on a daily basis.  

That's why it's so important to develop everyone's critical sense, to develop skills that enable us to look critically at the streams of information that we scroll through with our fingers, over and over again. If we don't have these skills, there is a high probability that we will be deceived or that we will be agents, even if not intentionally, in the dissemination of information that may be false or even malicious. In this context, these values are not only required of people trained in journalism, but of society in general.   

The level of demand is not only for people who have a degree in journalism or even communications, I think that this level of demand at the moment, it seems impossible for us to say that we live in the information society, so we all have to realise a little bit of that.

In the words of Professor Luís, people continue to consume information, but not what he would call information. They are consuming information, and a lot of it, but they are reading more little bits of things, 3 or 4 lines of each thing.

In other words, they are people who have access to a lot of information, who are interested in a lot of information, but this information is not what I would call relevant information. I think they tend to have more superficial information about so-called public affairs, about issues that affect their lives - inflation, mortgage interest rates, strikes, hospital emergency services or even political parties. They have less information about that, but I can also tell you that when people are nudged to take an interest, many of them just needed that nudge.   

One of the problems with this is digital platforms, the distribution of information and the way algorithms work. We tend to get information based on what we're already interested in or what we've searched for. This ends up creating bubbles around people. For Professor Luís, the issue is even more complicated.

It depends on what the advertisers want. And in many cases the advertisers aren't even advertisers selling soap or trainers. They're advertisers selling political projects... At the time we're recording this programme, we've noticed that there's a lot of activation, for example, of the tiktok streams with political messages of a certain kind.

Artificial intelligence makes things even more complicated. If there are advantages to AI, there are. Professor Luís' students are already using this type of tool, but he warns that there is a learning curve.

First of all, people have to realise that these kinds of tools and the tools that we have access to today are still very basic: some do things that we think are extraordinary, but they are still very basic. In three, four or five years' time we'll be at a completely different level, but in spite of everything people still have to look at them as tools, it seems to me, that facilitate, that complete, but don't do all our work.  

"The idea that this phenomenon of disinformation is something new is not true".

Digital therefore allows us to immerse ourselves in new content and tools that can help us. But it requires the ability to evaluate what we are exposed to, regardless of the type of content we receive. Disinformation is not a new reality.

The idea that this phenomenon of disinformation is something new is not true. There has always been disinformation. I think what's new is the scale. The scale is what makes everything overwhelming. Scale is linked to speed. Because 30 or 40 years ago there was also disinformation. We all remember some of the rumours that circulated in Portuguese society. They also spread, but much more slowly. Nowadays they spread in an hour, an hour and a half.


It seems to Professor Luís that there is no magic coin that will turn this situation around. We're going to have to live with it, and in that sense we need to recognise the misinformation, understand what it means and come up with solutions.

We're going to have to have mechanisms to identify it, to counter it and to train people to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. Whether it's health information, banking information, commercial information, political information or journalistic information. So to assume that there is a single solution that will solve all of this, or to assume that it will go away, are two assumptions that I think are wrong and will get us nowhere.

And this solution must involve society as a whole.

When media literacy solutions are sometimes proposed, they usually point to the younger generations, but that means we've given up on everyone else. No, they're all here. Portugal has an ageing population. I don't know what most people's experience is, but I have received things from my mother, fake things, from my mother... So nobody is immune to these things, and if we just focus on one or two generations, I don't think we're doing our job properly.

Watch the full episode on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes or Google Podcasts.


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