The rising importance of disinformation in media literacy

As part of the #MediaSmartOnline campaign, aiming to spotlight media literacy actions across Europe and running in cooperation with the network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) and the Media & Learning Association (MLA) within the framework of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) initiative, we are producing articles on a series of focus topics related to media literacy. This week, we’re diving into disinformation and misinformation.

Date 2024-04-02 Author BIK Team Section awareness Topic media literacy/education, potentially harmful content Audience media specialist, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
Visual identity of Media Smart Online: Spotlighting media literacy actions in Europe

As defined in the 2022 Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation:

Misinformation is false or misleading content shared without harmful intent though the effects can be still harmful, e.g. when people share false information with friends and family in good faith.
Disinformation is false or misleading content that is spread with an intention to deceive or secure economic or political gain and which may cause public harm”.

You can consult more examples and get an overview of all types of mis- and disinformation on the BIK Teacher corner.

Why disinformation?

In recent years, media literacy priorities have evolved to predominantly focus on the fight against disinformation. Several key factors have contributed to this shift: 

  • The rise of new technologies, such as social media and artificial intelligence, have made it easier for disinformation to spread. Social media have become the primary sources of news and information for many people. The virality of content on these platforms has made it easier for misinformation and disinformation to spread quickly to a broad audience. This required a change in priorities: an immediate need to develop new tools and strategies to help detect, remove, and debunk disinformation. This includes, for example, fact-checking tools, social media bots, and artificial intelligence (AI) systems. 
  • Coupled with this is the increasing sophistication of disinformation campaigns: disinformation actors are constantly developing new and more sophisticated ways to spread their messages. This has made it more difficult to detect and remove disinformation and has required a change in order to keep up. 
  • The growing impact of disinformation on democracy and society: disinformation has been shown to have a significant impact on elections, public opinion, and social cohesion. Some of the concerns include: the intensification and proliferation of high-profile incidents of election interference, fake news, manipulation of news narratives, and political polarisation fuelled by false information, all of which have exacerbated a potential societal risk. This has led to a growing recognition of the need to prioritise the fight against disinformation. 
  • The greater focus on education and increasing public awareness: citizens are becoming more aware of the dangers of disinformation and are demanding more action be taken to address it. This has also led to a change in priorities, as governments and other organisations are now under increasing pressure to take action against disinformation. This includes developing public awareness campaigns and making citizens media literate. 
  • There is a greater focus on international cooperation: governments and organisations are increasingly working together to combat disinformation. This includes sharing information, developing common strategies, and coordinating efforts to take down disinformation campaigns. 

The fight against disinformation is complex and challenging, but the changing priorities reflect a growing recognition of the importance of this issue. By understanding the reasons for the changing priorities, we can better understand the challenges that lie ahead and how we can work together to address them. More and more people come to accept the importance of media literacy, and this is mainly based on an understanding that while fact-checking and the acceptance of more responsible standards of operation by all media platforms and outlets are vital to the democratic health of all aspects of our society, it is only by increasing the media literacy of all citizens that we can truly beat disinformation. 

Where does the EU stand on disinformation?

The European Commission is tackling the spread of online disinformation and misinformation to ensure the protection of European values and democratic systems with the EU strategy on disinformation. It includes:

In addition, the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027) is a comprehensive EU initiative that envisions the establishment of a high-quality, inclusive, and accessible digital education landscape in Europe. It reflects the EU's commitment to adapting Member States' education and training systems to the digital era, with an emphasis on fostering collaboration and addressing the challenges posed by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of notable significance within the plan is the formulation of common guidelines to empower teachers and educators in cultivating digital literacy and combatting disinformation through education and training.

The work of EDMO

The European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) is an independent observatory bringing together fact-checkers and academic researchers with expertise in the field of online disinformation, social media platforms, journalist driven media and media literacy practitioners. Their website contains many useful articles that can help educators stay up to date with current disinformation trends and issues across Europe.

EDMO is an EU-funded project based at the European University Institute’s School of Transnational Governance in Florence, Italy. EDMO serves as a hub for fact-checkers, media literacy experts, academic researchers and other relevant stakeholders to understand and analyse disinformation, in collaboration with media organisations, online platforms and media literacy practitioners. It covers the 27 EU member states and Norway. On the media literacy strand, EDMO is seeking to become a vital resource for the media literacy community in Europe, providing expertise, ideas and opportunities for connection that will empower media literacy practitioners and others in the fight against disinformation. They also carry out a number of fact-checking activities, support and coordinate research to counter disinformation, and periodically map the media literacy landscape to make sense of the fragmented and dispersed nature of the media literacy sector. 

Other projects and resources

Some of the work done either on the EU institutional level or through EU-funded projects:

  • Facts4All: Schools tackling disinformation MOOC – As part of the Facts4All project, European Schoolnet and project partners created a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for teachers on how to tackle disinformation in school communities. All the MOOC content is available as an archived course. More information on the project is available here.
  • School of Social Networks – This resource is for primary-aged children, teachers and parents/carers provides information and advice on a range of online issues, including around evaluating what can or can’t be trusted online, such as fake news. There are accompanying activities that teachers can use in the classroom and parents can use at home.
  • SMILES is a media literacy project supported under the EC’s ERASMUS+ Programme that developed innovative learning methods to help young people deal with disinformation. The SMILES team was made up of partners from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain who work in libraries, media literacy organisations and research institutes. The SMILES team has prepared a series of activities, materials and tools about disinformation which allows young people aged 12 to 16 to develop their knowledge and skills in recognising and combating fake news and disinformation. According to the evaluation report, over 40 per cent of the pupils in the three countries enjoyed participating in the series of activities.
  • EDUmake is a two-year project supported under the EC’s Creative Europe Programme which started in October 2022. It centres on an innovative interactive educational approach called EDUbox, designed by and for teachers, for implementation in classrooms. It is a collaborative effort involving partners from Belgium, Croatia, and the Netherlands, who are adapting localised versions of existing EDUbox resources for students aged 12-18. These materials leverage high-quality audiovisual content and interactive strategies to engage students. The content of EDUbox materials revolves around addressing significant societal issues, including inclusion, polarisation, countering disinformation, culture, and social media. EDUmake is developing a specific version of EDUbox on politics in advance of the European Elections in 2024. An essential aspect of the project is to create an accessible format for translating and contextualising EDUbox resources across, and potentially beyond, the European Union.
  • Uniti contro la disinformazione (United against disinformation) is a public campaign run by the Italian Digital Media Observatory (IDMO) in collaboration with RAI (the Italian national public broadcaster). This campaign consists of a video series on disinformation and digital inclusion, which aimed to give citizens the appropriate tools to develop their critical thinking and exercise their digital citizenship. The content is designed for use on social media, but can also be used on online and linear TV channels. Three literacy campaigns, consisting of 10 ‘pills’ each, have already been produced and spread across digital media, alongside a broadcast series targeting school libraries. 

On the industry side, some initiatives include:

  • Jigsaw is a unit within Google that explores threats to open societies, and builds technology that inspires scalable solutions. The team look for high-impact interventions, where focusing on helping a specific group of people — journalists, civil society, or activists, for example — makes the internet and society stronger and safer for everyone. Focus areas address some of the most complex challenges facing open societies, such as disinformation, censorship, toxicity (toxic language online), and violent extremism.
  • A practical guide to prebunking misinformation: This work is a collaborative effort between the University of Cambridge, Jigsaw (Google) and BBC Media Action. The University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab has been at the forefront of developing pre-bunking approaches, based on inoculation theory, designed to build people’s resilience to mis- and disinformation. An article with results is available from the Central and Eastern Europe campaign.

Don’t miss out on the publication of the MediaSmartOnline campaign materials: check the campaign page regularly and follow the #MediaSmartOnline hashtag to see the campaign roll out on social media.

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