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Digital literacy in the age of manipulative information

Manipulative information and global communication

We have created, nourished and allowed the digital age we live in. Including its good intentions, our bad usage and its ugly effects. Maybe we, as users, have been negligent in how to make proper use of its immense potential and have systematically ignored any pertinent thought regarding its obvious downsides. Maybe our society has been short sighted for not demanding content creators to develop a common good ethos before setting themselves to viciously grow their followers base. And maybe our governmental institutions, thought leaders and academic intellectuals have decided to carelessly look the other way, while technology giants decided to take total control and built their competition-killing monopolies. For whatever reason it may be (and I am not mentioning many, many others), the bottom line is that the digital revolution that was supposed to strengthen democracy by giving voice to those left behind, has become a stage for extremist narrative, impossible dialogues and constant abuses. Shame on us!

The good news is that a relevant part of society seems to be awakening and preparing itself to face the reality and lead change. Lately, institutions, thoughtful voices and experts from different fields have come to an agreement: when taking a look at our digital age, something has gone amiss.

To reset our relation and usage of the digital realm is an urgent need. After realizing everything that we are missing out on, we have an opportunity to build tools and procedures to combat misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. We must demand our leaders to change tactics and reevaluate the populistic dominion of the political dialogue. And we must reinforce our laws and institutions to encourage the technology industry to protect free market competition.

All the same, none of these actions can do as much to reestablish the brilliant potential of the digital age as digital literacy. Only digital literacy can unleash all the good that was supposed to happen in the digital age.

The digital landscape has evolved at an accelerated pace for the last couple of decades. This means uncomparable changes in the technological side and unprecedented changes in the way its influence grew to impact our societies. I am specially interested in focusing on revisiting digital literacy to discuss the incorporation of new skills, thinking and actions needed to combat information distortion.

Digital literacy and global communication

The term literacy has taken diverse iterations in the last few decades, from information literacy, to digital literacy, and the recently coined data literacy. Without the intention to open a discussion on the specific definition of each of these expressions, it is very clear these concepts overlap. Moreover if we consider that the great majority of the information we consume is delivered through digital channels in the context of a datafied society. That’s the reason I consider digital literacy encompasses the older information literacy idea, while it is still relevant to include the new data scenario mindset.

The topic of corrupted information is not new, but recently disinformation, misinformation and malinformation have proliferated in a context of online attention economy (click-bait has become a common term even among consolidated journalistic brands). You might think that the problem is reserved for radical websites spreading fake news using journalistic formats, automated troll bots in social networks such as Twitter or Facebook, or for fake impersonation of worldwide celebrities endorsing dubious initiatives… But the reality is that all these elements are not only present in channels managed by obscure agents. The use of digital manipulation methods has become widespread by governments, companies and previously respectful individuals.

New skills in global communication

This means that people need to develop new knowledge and skills. Until now, the emphasis has been around basic practical skills to cover the need to include disadvantaged citizens in society. While this final goal must clearly be maintained and defended, it has proven not to be sufficient to stop the damaging, inequality-reinforcing and manipulative outcomes of information distortion. As a society, we should aim to develop a proactive set of skills, where the individual is not a passive receiver of information, but a totally engaged agent with a deep and critical understanding of the digital economy and media ecosystem with special focus on becoming aware of his role in the entire process. 

Today’s digital realm enables multiple participation formulas for any given person. But regretfully, most of us are neither aware of the potential of these formulas, nor of the connections between online activities and their impact on the offline realm. By developing a proactive set of skills, we could discover opportunities to exercise our rights (for example through claiming compensation for the wrongdoings of an airline during our last family trip) and contribute to our community (by highlighting and collectively exploring a possible solution for the local security problem). Actively contributing to online forums, using open data sources for the benefit of our community, engaging in privacy debates, sharing formulas to fact-check things or creating online campaigns are some of the initiatives that are available to all of us, but very, very few use.

As active members of society, we need to understand how to use digital tools and resources to become active members in our community, this includes becoming aware of the role of the digital realm in the construction and molding of societal and political life, thinking critically about the value of the information received and recognizing the impact of third parties and our own actions in this sphere.

To accomplish all this, the first thing we must change is our mindset regarding the new set of skills needed. We cannot continue thinking of digital literacy in terms of an individual. It is not enough for one person to understand how the digital economy and media system works. All of us must become aware of the implications of using those resources and the impact in our community regarding our interaction. What happens if I share this message? Who is this information benefiting? Who is it damaging? Is the information complete? Is it accurate? What will be the impact of this piece of information within society? These are some of the questions we need to incorporate in every interaction. Let’s take responsibility for our role. It is not a question of who is accountable. All of us must be.