Top Czech YouTuber doing media literacy education for hundreds of thousands was inspired by John Oliver
Karel Kovář, the leading Czech YouTuber known to his 700 000 subscribers under the nickame Kovy, says the natural setting for media education is school, not attempting to reach a tired adult who has just completed an eight-hour shift. He believes Czech people are also only beginning to learn how to live in the world of online social networks.
In collaboration with the People in Need organization, Kovy has now released a series of online videos intended to aid high-schoolers with orienting themselves in the world of information and the media. Speaking in an interview for the investigative journalism website HlídacíPes.org, Kovy says "Even YouTube itself does not understand its own algorithms sometimes," and explains why, thanks to his big community of fans, he is no longer dependent on making the titles for his videos instantly attractive.
Thanks to his subscribers, Kovy can dedicate time to complex subjects and make them available to an audience that would otherwise have difficulty accessing them. In addition to disinformation and media literacy, he has also made successful videos about controversial reforms to intellectual property rights in the EU.
"I usually post the links to the sources I have drawn on into the label for the video, or when I am speaking about something, the specific articles are directly shown so it's visible what source the information comes from," he describes his attempt to uphold the principle of sourcing and other tenets of journalism in the loose genre of video production. In addition to creating videos, he also contributes to several charity projects, moderates a program on Seznam TV, and visits Czech schools in person.
Sputnik covered me
Q: You're 22 years old - when did you first realize media literacy is a crucial subject?
A: Since childhood - when I used to play with Legos there would be political programs on the television and my family, my parents, frequently discussed the news, back then politicians like Gross and Paroubek were getting their start. As I was growing up I followed the news and once I learned English I began to follow content from abroad as well. The wave of infotainment arrived here, begun by John Stewart ,and then John Oliver, and everything that is happening today. I think John Oliver was the inspiration for me to attempt this format. As far as events go, it was during the Czech presidential elections that I realized it is necessary to directly address media literacy here.
Q: Your new videos for schools are dedicated, for example, to media ownership or to the credibility of information sources. Do you have a "favorite" hoax or falsified news item that demonstrates how fake news basically works?
A: I can recall many hoaxes from the Czech presidential campaign, coming from both sides. It was "Zeman's artificial leg" vs. "Drahoš welcomes migrants". At the time I analyzed in one of my own videos how neither the adoption of the euro nor migrants should be subjects that would be addressed in that context at all, because the President basically will never influence either issue. Despite that, those were the main themes being discussed.
Q: Do you read alternative media sources as well as mainstream ones for information?
A: I know that when I visited Russia the Sputnik website wrote an article about it. I have long taken note of what they cover, and I frequently take a look at Parlamentní listy, mainly because of their headlines, which today are the only thing many people read. Even if the article in and of itself might be fine, the headline for it is... well, it's not worth discussing. On the other hand, there are some opinion-setting media outlets here that do not always honor the craft of journalism as far as I am concerned.
Q: Such as?
A: For example, Svobodné fórum (Free Forum). They do not at all conceal the fact that they are an opinion-setting outlet, but at some moments I have problems with how their information is being "delivered". They combine commentary with news to a really terrible extent and they mix genres, which I dislike in the environment of journalism. I think the division of society flows from this - news reporting is perceived as it if were commentary today.
How to burst a bubble
Q: Do you adapt your own videos, somehow, according to what you see in the alternative media? I mean stylistically, so that your videos aren't just for the "Prague café-goers", so the information and the language are more accessible to people who do not believe the mainstream media?
A: I made a video about algorithms, for example, where I described the phenomenon of informational or social "bubbles", when we see headlines just from the opinion-setting websites that already chime with our own convictions. The video is about how these algorithms work, why the videos that are shown to us are the ones chosen for us, and I'd say that video is probably one that anybody could understand. At the close of that video, once the viewer is a bit informed, I do my best to also describe a bit why it is such a problem for us to sit down with somebody who does not share our opinion and talk about it.
Q: Can you tell, from the data analysis of your videos on YouTube, whether people who read Parlamentní listy and media like that also watch you?
A: That's difficult. YouTube is not absolutely reliable when it comes to a lot of its own data, many people do not input their actual birthdays, stuff like that. Facebook is a bit better in that respect...
Q: ... and your videos are also disseminated through Facebook especially, right?
A: Sometimes, but it's done through sharing, and YouTube doesn't "see" or track that data. You can see numbers, the most you can see is how many people came to your video from an external source and not from YouTube itself, but you cannot see who they are. Facebook and YouTube do not share that data with each other. However, it is possible to assess, for example, that older viewers are the ones who access informational videos more, which means the first wave of viewers on YouTube who began really using it in our country about seven years ago. Those people are "getting old" today, they're about 23 years old on average now. Most YouTubers recycle their work for the 15-year-olds, but those viewers are already following absolutely different stuff online today. The older ones basically no longer have anything to watch on Czech YouTube, so they are looking for this informational content.
Q: Do you have a rough idea of how often your videos are shared through YouTube compared to being shared through social networks?
A: I don't really worry about that. I can see how many people are subscribers and how many are not, which is roughly a 70-30 split. For my video about Article 13 [a controversial reform to intellectual property law at EU level - Editors], most of those who watched it were not subscribers. For some videos one can see that they made it outside the bubble, that they burst the bubble a bit and are reaching people who normally do not watch my videos but who were interested in the subject. Especially during the run-up to the presidential elections they were shared a lot, even to groups like "Miloš Zeman is our hero" and such. There were a couple of Zeman voters who recognized that one of my videos ahead of the second round of voting was fair and who managed to watch it to the end. From my perspective, it was fine that I did not contribute to further dividing society with my content, or at least that's what I hoped.
Even YouTube doesn't understand its own algorithm
Q: YouTube recently announced it would be changing its search engine algorithm so that users would be offered relevant information sources first, for example, as part of the fight against fake news, and not extremist videos. A typical example: If I type in "Germany" and "refugees", videos of protests by the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA are not the first things that will show up now. Have you noticed YouTube behaving differently after these changes?
A: I know it was meant to change, but I have not noticed any privileging of relevant information sources. That fizzled out, basically I don't know how that effort ended up.
Q: Do you create your own videos so the YouTube algorithm will "like" them?
A: I thank God that I don't have to think about clickbait that much. There are many YouTubers who do not have a more stable community of people following them and who have to fight to get somebody to click on each video. I rely on my community of regular viewers, and if they like something, they share it with others not in the community. If somebody has a weaker community, he has to try to get attention with clickbait headlines. Naturally there are some rules about how to write a headline. First, it has to be at least a bit accurate, and second, it has to be interesting. It's a big science: the headline, the thumbprint image, what tags to use, the categorization ... However, nobody knows - even YouTube themsleves are sometimes unable to explain - why some things do what they do. They change the algorithm, something stops working, they research why, etc., - the developers themselves frequently do not understand the algorithm.
Q: You mentioned that you took up the not exactly easy subject of a controversial EU directive in your videos, one that changes intellectual property rights, specifically, one of its controversial articles, number 13. That reform has sparked a lot of emotion in the Czech Republic, journalists, politicians and publishers are expressing their views of it... Were you ever asked to somehow contribute to the process of adopting these new rules?
A: YouTube itself is addressing this quite a bit and undertaking a campaign about it. MEPs responded to the video I made, e-mails began to be written to them, so I communicated with them and met some in person. YouTube called me about it and I gave them my perspective, as an author. I also got feedback from some journalists who are in favor of the directive. I asked the MEPs if they have any idea what will happen next, whether the courts might not be flooded with intellectual property disputes. Essentially, nobody is thinking it through much. Many MEPs approve of it just because it is part of a big directive that is mostly brilliantly written, but the sacrifice is that Article 13 is not perfect. The entire directive will probably be adopted, if I had to place a bet on it.
Klaus, Jr? Pure populism
Q: One of the crucial matters you discuss in your videos for schools about media literacy is how to recognize credible information sources. How do you generally address sourcing in your own videos so that they are in order in terms of journalism?
A: I spend a great deal of time preparing my videos. I usually post links to the websites I drew from in the label for the video, or while I am speaking about something I show the specific articles so one can see what sources I used. I do my best to verify the information, but I don't have an editorial team, and it is possible that I could make a mistake in an 18-minute-long video. If that happens, I usually correct it by adding a commentary, and where there is a fact-check it is done by the viewers themselves, so it's a very community endeavor. Several hours after the video has been launched it has usually been completely corrected that way. However, naturally even before I launch it I have somebody else read it over so I can avoid errors.
Q: What is your perspective on the regulation of opinions, including extreme and violent ones, on social networks? On the one hand we have the approach taken by Germany, which regulates problematic content by law, and on the other hand we have the proposal by Czech MP Václav Klaus, Jr, that deleting posts to social networks is what should be criminal, with a few exceptions. Which approach appeals to you?
A: Both approaches are complicated to define and the same principle applies to both: Theoretically in a beautiful, rosy world full of sunshine, all of this would work and be 100 % clear and be just black and white, it would be absolutely easy. However, in reality, the borderline for some communications, or news reports, or photos, is unbelievably thin, in some places it practically does not exist, and it is being wiped away, and the Internet is badly regulated, it's basically impossible. Both those proposals, if poorly grasped, could be used as instruments of censorship. While Klaus, Jr's proposal, for example, pretends to be an anti-censorship matter, it actually could be strongly pro-censorship. It's pure populism.
Q: Let's go back to the divided society. You're from Pardubice, do you still live there?
A: I return from time to time.
Q: Frequently enough to know how places outside of Prague work?
A: I keep tabs on it.
Q: To what degree can the videos about media literacy that you have now presented in Prague function in the countryside?
A: That depends, to a very great extent, on the specific teachers using them. I don't like the approach that assumes everything functions perfectly in Prague but outside Prague nothing does. I travel a lot, I do my best to visit colleges, high schools, and primary schools - in Broumov, in Most, in Zlín - so I have some idea about how things work at schools elsewhere. You can always find a group of very active, energetic students or teachers who are doing their best to go above and beyond for their pupils. This is about the school administration not tripping them up and about there being enough people willing to travel around the republic to decentralize it from Prague. When it comes to media education, the biggest problem always is that it not become "brainwashing" or an attempt to manipulate somebody. However, this project, I think, actually stands on those basic rules for how people should decided whether to accept information or not. The examples used are there because they break those rules, not because we have chosen to target this or that website.
Q: Several times in the videos, for a rather large amount of time, the subject of Czech media ownership is repeated. You introduce the different owners and describe the actual state of affairs, i.e., who owns what, but basically you do not say what it means that a certain media outlet is owned by this or that oligarch or person, how it affects the media...
A: Exactly, we did not want to design the project so that it would draw any conclusions or present any opinions. At that moment we would be entering the subjective level, and each of us grasps things a bit differently on that level. I believe something has already been developed from this in the other materials for the teachers that were prepared for use with the videos. Naturally, it is up to the specific teachers how to present this material. What we gave them is more like a general framework and instructions.
Q: Your new videos mainly target high schools, but all generations living in the Czech Republic are limping along when it comes to media literacy. Some people share chain e-mails, some don't recognize manipulation by television news programs, others believe status updates on Facebook uncritically. Do you see a specific age group that most needs taking on?
A: I think that as a society we all have some work ahead of us to learn how to live in the world of social networks, which we don't know much about yet. Media literacy seems natural to me exactly as part of education - it would be good to take it on for other age categories, but we won't find a place or time at which to deliver the information to them. Teenagers are still being formed, they spend some time at school, so they can also learn something about these matters then and there. It's a combination of the pleasant with the useful. Educated people who are working come home exhausted after an eight-hour shift, take care of their children, etc., it's much more complicated.
This article was written for the Institute for Independent Journalism in the Czech Republic, an independent, nonprofit organization and registered institute involved in publishing information, journalism and news reporting. Its analyses, articles and data outputs are offered to all equally for use under certain conditions.
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