Introduce digital media literacy in schools
A recent study focused on the United States and India pointed out the lack of attention to digital media literacy in education policies as a critical factor in spreading online misinformation.
The power of social media to optimise and speed up the spread of misinformation and its detrimental consequences for democracy are matters of concern among policymakers across the world. Misinformation spread through social media applications (49% of the global population are active users) have been linked to entrenched social polarisation, the rise of authoritarianism, vaccine hesitancy, and real-life violence. Hence, upholding democratic values requires measures to limit and control the dissemination of misinformation on social media platforms.
There are two main policy-driven approaches to tackle misinformation – regulation of social media platforms and social media literacy.
Regulation and its limits
The more popular approach among governments is regulating social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. However, such interventions are fraught with adverse political fallouts as citizens in most liberal democratic societies are suspicious of State interventions on free speech. Another strategy is self-regulation by the platforms themselves, which can make changes quickly and at scale. However, engagement is a key source of their revenues, and thus these platforms have an incentive to rig their algorithms to spread emotionally charged misinformation. Further, research shows that strategies to tag misinformation have a marginal effect on the propensity to consume and share false news.
A second strategy that has not received sufficient attention (particularly in India) is digital media literacy to the citizens, especially school children, to equip them with skills to steer through the information they receive via these platforms. Hence, technological interventions to tackle misinformation should be complemented with human-centred solutions focused on digital media literacy. A recent study focused on the United States and India pointed out the lack of attention to digital media literacy in education policies as a critical factor in spreading online misinformation. A report by the United Kingdom’s communication regulator Ofcom also underlined the significance of media literacy skills to limit the spread of misinformation.
The Government of India’s National Education Policy 2022 is a missed opportunity to insert media literacy in the curriculum. The policy gives considerable importance to ‘higher-order’ cognitive capacities, such as critical thinking and problem-solving – but also social, ethical, and emotional capacities and dispositions” (p.3). However, ‘digital literacy’ is mentioned once in the entire document, and social media literacy is entirely neglected. This is a serious gap as social media is the primary source of students’ literacy. Education policy should equip students with social media literacy that would involve the application of critical thinking to the information they are flooded with daily through social media.
Digital media literacy programme for school children:
A recent study from Stanford highlights how ill-prepared students are for checking the credibility of the information received online. Differentiating credible information from misinformation or fake news is a skill that needs to be imparted right from school to become responsible citizens. Several international examples can provide templates for governments in India.
A study piloting 50 schools in Ukraine focusing on 8th and 9th-grade students found improvement in students’ ability to identify disinformation, propaganda, facts, opinions, and hate speech after teachers incorporated the “Learn to Discern in School” (L2D) curriculum in their classes. The curriculum was adapted from IREX’s “Learn to Discern skill-building methodology” for media and information literacy. The results of the study point that L2D participants were twice as likely to detect hate speech.
Another example of such an initiative is from Finland. The government launched an anti-fake news initiative to teach residents, students, journalists and politicians how to counter false information designed to sow division. The training programme was piloted by a 30-member high-level committee representing over 20 different bodies, including the government ministries and welfare organisations. The national educational system was also revised in 2016 to include critical thinking and multi-platform information literacy into the curriculum.
Kerala has made a similar initiative in Kannur district. During 2016-2018, there were multiple instances of misinformation regarding the MMR (Mumps Measles Rubella) vaccine. The district administration responded with a digital media literacy programme called “Sathyameva Jayate” to combat this. The programme included sensitisation on topics like how the internet works, how money goes to the creators through click links, click baits, filter bubbles, how social media customises our internet experience as per our choices. Teachers used various audio-visual forms for training the students. The state government is rolling out a new digital literacy programme to tackle fake news through government schools.
Politics of curriculum
Setting a school curriculum is a politically volatile process. This is particularly relevant when implementing media literacy programmes through school curriculums on truth and fake news. For instance, media literacy education can be suspected of indoctrinating students and pushing partisan ideological agendas. In addition, treating dominant ideology as the neutral norm can reinforce prevailing hierarchies through media literacy education.
Some scholars also argue that media literacy education may lead to an anti-media bias, which may take away the potential for empowerment media can offer. In response to these ideological and political debates, some scholars stress making students (and adults) aware of the power dynamics of production, purpose and themes of dominant media to evaluate the information being presented to them. The type of funding also influences the kind of media literacy programmes put in place.
Political actors are becoming increasingly adept at using social media to spread misinformation to suit their interests. Policies to govern technology platforms – whether State-led or voluntary – is important. However, equipping citizens with the awareness and skills to navigate the vast amount of information being flooded through social media is just as important. Inserting digital media literacy programmes into school curriculums is a desperately needed policy intervention to prepare responsible future citizens in this digital world and uphold democratic values.
Chandana S is a student at the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay
The views expressed are personal