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Opinion: Teaching children digital literacy is a must if we are to combat misinformation

Emma DeSouza says children and the wider community must be taught the required skills to navigate a digital world.

Emma DeSouza

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR recently stated that Irish politics is becoming more polarised with social media facilitating one side of a story becoming “accepted fact within hours” but is social media really to blame?

Or is it how we use these platforms that matter? With the current acrimony in Irish politics, often expressed via social media, you’d almost think Ireland was hurtling towards an election.

What is becoming clear is that political parties are increasingly utilising media, and advances in technology, to attack the opposition. We’ve already seen how damaging these tactics can be for politics in America.

I believe the tool to counter it is embedding digital literacy skills to our education system and society. The term ‘literacy’ is most often associated with the ability to read and write. ‘Digital literacy’, however, is the ability to navigate the ever-growing technology-based society which we live in.

It refers not only to the ability to type, utilise software, and scour the internet, but also includes recognising the nuances and pitfalls of social media, and importantly, being able to use critical thinking to scrutinise the quality and authenticity of digital media.

In a time of ‘deepfakes’ and ‘fake news’, discerning whether a piece of information is from a reputable source has become hugely significant. The media that we consume has a profound effect on our daily lives – from deciding how we may choose to cast our ballot during an election, to making important healthcare decisions during a global pandemic. Digital literacy is a deceptively necessary firewall in a ‘post-truth’ world.

Smoke and mirrors

The doctoring photos and videos is nothing new – Adobe Photoshop, for example, has been around for decades but advances in technology continue to push the boundaries of video and image manipulation, and in turn, blur the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not.

There are many who pride themselves on being able to identify when something ‘looks shopped’, often sighting pixel imperfections, or having seen several ‘shops’ in their time. This ability to scrutinise digital content has slowly become more and more commonplace, and for a time, digital image trickery appeared to have plateaued. Then came the ‘deepfakes’.

Deepfake technology can create sometimes startlingly convincing yet entirely fictional photos, videos, and even audio almost from scratch.

Specialised software is used which harnesses the power of AI-generated tech, machine learning, and deep learning to build off of pre-existing source material with the result being a new piece of media which appears to be one thing when it’s something else entirely.

shutterstock_1658328688(2) Source: Shutterstock/Tenebroso

Well, maybe not “entirely”. Have you seen Tom Cruise’s 2020 presidential campaign announcement? Or the video of Mark Zuckerberg boasting of how the platform ‘owns’ its users? Then you’ve seen a deepfake.

Deepfakes emerged in 2017 and are becoming increasingly more convincing and more prevalent, and all they require are abundant pools of source material to draw from. In an age where almost everyone with an internet connection has countless photographs of themselves from every conceivable angle, this new tech won’t always be reserved for politicians and actors.

So how do you know if something you’ve seen is deepfaked? There are a couple of indicators, such as facial discolourations, unnatural lighting, and audio being out of sync, however, none of these is a guarantee for spotting one. As the deepfake technology becomes increasingly more sophisticated, spotting these tells will become steadily more difficult, which is why digital literacy is so important.

Digital literacy for children

Critical thinking is a crucial skill in media and information literacy – being able to evaluate information and arguments, identify patterns, and form educated viewpoints can all prove to be invaluable tools.

There are inherent risks in the digital age, with children increasingly accessing the internet with ease at younger ages with fewer restrictions as to which content they should be able to access. 

We have a generation growing up more connected than ever before, which can have tremendous potential benefits, but there are no assurances that many of these children are adhering to safe internet practices, nor learning the necessary tricks to become adept at identifying dangerous misinformation.

In many ways, the forthcoming generations are more vulnerable than anyone to the malicious side of the deepfake phenomenon. A desire to ensure children are not only able to navigate technology but know how to do so safely has lead to calls for digital literacy to become the fourth pillar of education alongside reading, writing and maths.

Minister Simon Harris TD, during his address at the OECD’s Skills Summit this year, spoke of a need for increased digital literacy, which was identified as a priority by Ireland’s National Skills Council.

A gap in digital literacy is in no way exclusive to children or young people of course – in a report from Accenture, 42% of those surveyed rated their digital skills as ‘average’ or below.

The report also suggested that the gap in digital literacy is likely to widen further as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions, with more people relying on technology for shopping and working from home.

Research also shows that older people are more susceptible to misinformation. That, in itself, can have a seismic social effect. For example, adults aged 65 or older voted at a higher rate than any other age demographic in the 2016 US election, suggesting that those most vulnerable to misinformation, are the group that voted the most.

A perhaps telling development, given that the term ‘fake news’ dominated Donald Trump’s one-term presidency. In simple terms, fake news is essentially false information presented as fact.

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The dangers of misinformation

Misinformation can be dangerous, many will have met a climate denier, or more recently, someone who perceives the global pandemic sweeping the globe as a ‘staged event’- they aren’t consuming this nonsense from a reputable source or site, but rather genuinely believe it to be true.

And therein lies one of the many dangers of misinformation. The term is also used to undermine genuine facts – another tactic favoured by the Trump administration, as well as evidenced by the 2016 Brexit referendum. In many ways, watching both the US and the UK almost simultaneously succumb to such duplicitous tactics, it was as if the two worked in tandem.

Several countries are successfully tackling the rise in misinformation through the education system. Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to fake news – teaches digital literacy in primary schools.

The curriculum is part of a unique, broad strategy devised by the Finnish government in 2014 to counter media manipulation. Since 2016, multi-platform information literacy and strong critical thinking have become a core, cross-subject component of the national curriculum.

The term ‘post-truth’ was announced as the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016. Since then, it has become ingrained in political and social commentary. If we are living in a ‘post-truth’, ‘post-fact’, ‘fake news’ era, with these terms and tools becoming more prevalent in politics then investing in digital literacy will likely become more necessity than aspiration.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.

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Emma DeSouza

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