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MediaGlobal issues

Empowering young people to tell fake from fact

Marion MacGregor
October 6, 2020

Children who are taught media literacy in the classroom develop better resistance to misinformation online. Sharing tips via Instagram or Twitter could prove to be just as effective - and adults could also benefit.

Kroatien | Tag der Medienkompetenz | UNICEF
Media literacy Days in Croatia, organized by the Agency for Electronic Media and UNICEF, help children and young people to develop critical thinking skills, tolerance, self-respect and respect for others in the media.Image: UNICEF/Vanda Kljajo

Finland sounds too good to be true. The country has been ranked the best place in the world to live, according to the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, the happiest country, according to the 2019 World Happiness Report, and the third least corrupt, according to the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International,

It also is reported as having the freest press, according to the World Press Freedom Index, and has the OECD's best-educated kids, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). And now it also tops the European index of nations in being the most resistant nation to fake news.

Free MIL for everyone

It should therefore really come as no surprise that Finns of all ages are able to detect false information against the backdrop of all these superlatives. Not only is life good for the majority of people in the country - but they also have an education system that covers more than just an average curriculum and focuses on contemporary challenges.

If you have a good general education to start with, you are more likely to have a high level of media and information literacy (MIL), according Marin Lessenski, Program Director of the European Policies Program at the Open Society Institute. 

Media literacy across Europe

"Education is one of the most important factors," Lessenski, who headed up the Media Literacy Index 2019, stressed. "Finland’s high (MIL) rating is linked to its high PISA score, which indicates the quality of teaching and the overall education system in the country."

It’s not just about general education, however. Finland begins teaching information literacy and critical thinking to children in kindergarten as well as running MIL classes for older people. Its aim is to make sure that everyone - from school students to journalists, teachers and politicians - can spot various forms of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.

Skills for the 'post-truth' era

"We’re living in an age in which clear and simple facts have become an endangered species. … Children and adolescents require support to distinguish reliable from unreliable information, sincere communication from deliberate manipulation," Lessenski told DW. "It was in about 2016 or 2017, when 'post-truth' was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, that we finally understood that fake news was here to stay, and we had to work out what we could do about it.” 

The post-truth phenomenon had actually even started earlier, he added, with the fragmentation of traditional news sources and the proliferation of social media.

Years later, most countries in the world still have a long way to go to equip their citizens to be able to navigate media environments as well as the Finns are able to.

Read more: Spreading beyond the classroom - Media literacy goes viral 

Global approach focusing on youth

Marin Lessenski, Programmdirektor
Fake news is here to stay, says Marin Lessenski, Program Director at the Open Society Institute.Image: Privat

UNESCO, the UN body charged with promoting media development, freedom of expression, and access to information, says all countries should be taking media and information literacy seriously; In a global village, connected digitally and confronting a rapid spread of misinformation, everyone, but especially young people, need to be able to tell fact from fake, UNESCO stresses.

"What is needed is to integrate MIL into the formal education system and to develop national policies and strategies on media and information literacy," said Alton Grizzle, a specialist in media and information literacy at UNESCO.

"Through UNESCO interventions, in collaboration with our partners including the European Commission and SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), we are slowly developing a meaningful impact on the education system. We are training teachers to integrate MIL in their classrooms and seeing a lot more primary and secondary schools in some countries integrating MIL,” Grizzle added.

Frankreich Der Programmspezialist Alton Grizzle
Alton Grizzle says young people need to be engaged as catalysts for change in MIL programs.Image: UNESCO/Vytautas Magnus University

However, young people must not be seen simply as passive recipients of MIL learning, he stressed: "For too long, media and information literacy programs have focused on young people as beneficiaries of MIL. We need to engage young people as catalysts for change, as co-creators and co-leaders of media and information literacy development and dissemination." 

"UNESCO is piloting an initiative, Capacity Building on MIL for Youth Organizations. It is an institutional approach to ensure MIL expansion by guiding youth organizations and youth leaders to integrate MIL in their organization policies and programs, irrespective of their mandates."

Read more: Media and Information Literacy programs provide fact-checking skills

MIL CLICKS crowding out disinformation

Rather than using workshops, online courses, or integrating media and information literacy into education curricula, UNESCO came up with an approach to promoting media literacy based on the way misinformation and disinformation is spread organically on social media, called MIL CLICKS.

"MIL CLICKS uses an unorthodox approach," Grizzle explained.

The aim is to help people learn to spot misinformation in their normal day-to-day use of the Internet and social media, whether they are browsing the web, playing online, sharing information or socializing on various platforms. 

"The same way misinformation spreads through peer-to-peer connection, media and information literacy can spread, but we need stakeholders to come together and say 'if we stand together, we can actually do a great deal in crowding out some of the disinfodemic and some of the disinformation with more constructive content.'" 

Since the beginning of the so-called disinfodemic surrounding COVID-19, there has been an uptick in the sharing and engagement with content connected to the MIL CLICKS platform, said Grizzle. Encouragingly, this has also been seen in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, where media and information literacy is still being developed.

Read more: Using media literacy to fight disinformation

Protection or empowerment?

Another paradigm shift is needed, according to Grizzle, so that media literacy is not only seen as a tool to tackle social challenges but also as an exercise in self-empowerment - to enable and empower people to appropriate the massive opportunities that exist in the information, media and digital technological ecology.

"There are two main models: protection and empowerment. Do we promote MIL focusing on just protecting people, seeing it within a framework that treats technological platforms as being bad?

"Or do we emphasize more the model that recognizes that the exponential growth in digital technologies is giving people more opportunities to have a voice, to access information, to connect and socialize, to learn about different cultures, to engage in civic and sustainable development activities?," Grizzle told DW.

"That is the conundrum, and this is the framework for UNESCO's media and information literacy program. We also have to apply MIL as a tool to build trust in media for instance. This is why UNESCO recently released a groundbreaking resource, 'Media and Information Literacy in Journalism: A Handbook for Journalists and Journalism Educators.'

"We are pleased that partners like DW Akademie have adopted the UNESCO MIL framework," added Grizzle.

From October 24-31 South Korea will host the tenth UNESCO Global Media and Information Literacy Week with the theme "Resisting Disinfodemic: Media and Information Literacy for everyone and by everyone"