Ethan Shattock has a Masters of International Business Law Graduate from Maynooth University. He regularly blogs about politics, social issues and religion.
Tackling Fake News Online With Digital Media Literacy
Fake News, Real Problems
One of the most widely discussed problems currently associated with social media is the issue of 'fake news'. Fake news can refer to anything from harmless satirical comedy to more toxic and harmful false content. For this reason, the term disinformation is now more commonly used by law makers in this area. Recognised as a pressing threat to the security of Ireland's electoral process, the problem of disinformation online has attracted not only heavy media speculation but also attention from regulators.
The European Commission has published Codes of Practice on this issue, in order to guide how social media companies should respond to this growing threat. In addition, the Irish government has expressed concern about how disinformation online poses threats to the democratic and electoral process. In light of these developments, critical questions must now be asked, in relation to what steps can be taken in order to prevent the effective and rapid spread of false information online. Responses to this problem will likely take numerous forms, including through the proposed electoral commission. In the education system, a simple but very useful solution can be seen in the need to introduce digital media literacy schemes.
Digital Media Literacy
In plain terms, digital media literacy refers to how equipped we are in using new media technologies, including social media and smartphones. As it relates to the problem of disinformation, digital media literacy can be summarised as having the skills necessary to understand and identify credible online news sources, and how to independently evaluate and critically assess information encountered online. While this is a crucial and necessary process in combatting disinformation more generally, it is particularly important for young people to be equipped with skills necessary to navigate the difficulties surrounding new media technologies and access to information and news online.
Research suggests that as teenagers leave school, they enter an environment of low trust in the news they consume. A report in 2018 by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) found that 41% of Irish people between 18 and 24 consume news almost entirely through digital platforms, but that only 17% feel they can trust news on social media. A 2019 study in the United States found that out of 3446 students, two thirds could not tell the difference between advertisements and news content on a prominent news website. While new data points in this area are constantly emerging, it is important not to make the mistake of assuming that, just because young people are tech savvy, they are immune from the dangers of false news on social media.
Ireland has seen promising developments in the area of media literacy, such as the Webwise initiative. Globally, a collaboration between Google, The Net Safety Collaborative, and the Internet Keep Safe Coalition have expanded their "be internet awesome" curriculum to focus on disinformation, through their "don't fall for fake" initiative.
Deepfakes using AI: the latest development in the battle against fake news.
Keep It Up and Step it Up
While these are a step in the right direction, a clear focus must also be directed towards formal and dynamic approaches to ensuring robust digital media literacy initiatives in schools. This could also be part of the function of the proposed electoral commission. If digital media literacy is to be taken seriously, the government should make sure that both students and teachers are empowered with the necessary and user friendly tools to ensure that disinformation doesn't flood the devices of young people in Irish schools.
Useful examples can be seen through developments in other countries. For example, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has the AEC for schools programme, a resource for students and teachers provided free of charge. While this interesting programme focuses on the voting process, it would be particularly helpful for bodies like the proposed electoral commission combine information resources on voting with resources geared towards online privacy and safety. This could include guides on how to tell fact from fiction online. For example, to celebrate "safer internet day" Webwise published a new resource called "Connected" for Junior Cycle students. This covers numerous topics, including "false information" and "big data."
Effective digital media literacy initiatives must be pursued in efforts that attempt to combat fake news and disinformation. While there have been some promising steps in the right direction, it would be highly beneficial if digital media literacy had a more permanent place on the curriculum. In addition, the proposed electoral commission presents a valuable opportunity to build on existing efforts and foster an electoral environment where students know their rights, know how and why malicious actors might attempt to target their personal data, and know how to avoid the pitfalls of disinformation campaigns.