A recent study focusing on the United States and India highlighted the lack of attention to digital media literacy in education policies as a critical factor in the spread of disinformation online.
The power of social media to optimize and accelerate the spread of disinformation and its damaging consequences for democracy is of concern to policymakers around the world. Misinformation spread by social media apps (49% of the world’s population are active users) has been linked to entrenched social polarization, rising authoritarianism, vaccine hesitancy, and outright violence. Therefore, maintaining democratic values requires measures to limit and control the spread of false information on social media platforms.
There are two main policy-driven approaches to tackling disinformation: regulating social media platforms and controlling social media.
Regulation and its limits
The most popular approach among governments is to regulate social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. However, such interventions are fraught with negative political fallout because citizens in most liberal democratic societies are wary of state interventions on free speech. Another strategy is self-regulation by the platforms themselves, which can bring about changes quickly and at scale. However, engagement is a key source of their revenue, and so these platforms have an incentive to rig their algorithms to spread emotionally charged misinformation. Additionally, research shows that misinformation branding strategies have a marginal effect on the propensity to consume and share fake news.
A second strategy that has not received enough attention (particularly in India) is digital media education for citizens, especially schoolchildren, to equip them with the skills to navigate the information they receive. through these platforms. Therefore, technological interventions aimed at countering disinformation must be complemented by human-centered solutions focused on digital media literacy. A recent study focusing on the United States and India highlighted the lack of attention to digital media literacy in education policies as a critical factor in the spread of disinformation online. A report by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, also highlighted the importance of media literacy skills in limiting the spread of misinformation.
The Government of India’s National Education Policy 2022 is a missed opportunity to insert media literacy into the school curriculum. The policy places considerable importance on ‘higher order’ cognitive abilities, such as critical thinking and problem solving, but also on social, ethical and emotional abilities and dispositions” (p.3). However, “digital literacy” is only mentioned once in the entire document, and social media literacy is entirely neglected. This is a serious shortcoming, as social media is the primary source of student literacy. Education policy should equip students with a social media literacy that would involve applying critical thinking to the information they are inundated with daily through social media.
Digital media literacy program for school children:
A recent Stanford study highlights how poorly prepared students are to check the credibility of information received online. Differentiating credible information from disinformation or fake news is a skill that must be taught in school to become responsible citizens. Several international examples can provide models for Indian governments.
A pilot study of 50 schools in Ukraine involving 8th and 9th graders found improved ability of students to identify disinformation, propaganda, facts, opinions and hate speech after teachers have integrated the “Learning to discern at school” (L2D) program into their courses. The program has been adapted from IREX’s ‘Learning to Discern’ skills-building methodology for media and information literacy. The results of the study indicate that L2D participants were twice as likely to detect hate speech.
Another example of such an initiative comes from Finland. The government has launched an anti-fake news initiative to teach residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter divisive fake news. The training program was piloted by a high-level committee of 30 members representing more than 20 different agencies, including ministries and social organizations. The national education system was also overhauled in 2016 to include critical thinking and cross-platform information literacy in the curriculum.
Kerala has launched a similar initiative in Kannur district. From 2016 to 2018, there were several cases of misinformation regarding the MMR (mumps measles rubella) vaccine. The district administration responded with a digital media education program called “Sathyameva Jayate” to combat this. The program included awareness on topics such as how the internet works, how money goes to creators through click links, click bait, filter bubbles, how social media personalizes our experience Internet according to our choices. The teachers used various audio-visual forms to train the students. The state government is rolling out a new digital literacy program to combat fake news in public schools.
Curriculum setting is a politically unstable process. This is particularly relevant when implementing media literacy programs through school curricula on truth and fake news. For example, media education may be suspected of indoctrinating students and promoting partisan ideological agendas. Moreover, treating the dominant ideology as the neutral norm can reinforce dominant hierarchies through media literacy.
Some researchers also argue that media literacy can lead to anti-media bias, which can remove the empowering potential that media can offer. In response to these ideological and political debates, some scholars emphasize educating students (and adults) about the power dynamics of mainstream media production, purpose, and themes in evaluating the information presented to them. The type of funding also influences the type of media literacy programs put in place.
Political actors are increasingly adept at using social media to spread misinformation based on their interests. Policies to govern tech platforms – whether state-led or voluntary – are important. Equally important, however, is equipping citizens with the awareness and skills to navigate the vast amount of information inundated by social media. The insertion of digital media education programs into school curricula is a desperately needed political intervention to prepare future responsible citizens in this digital world and uphold democratic values.
Chandana S is a student at the Center for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay
Opinions expressed are personal