The spread of false or biased information, from genuinely erroneous rumours to outright lies, is nothing new. After all, instances of disinformation have been documented as far back as in Ancient Rome. Yet, the advent and democratisation of digital technologies have opened new avenues for this phenomenon, so much so that the term “fake news” was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year 2017.
And the trend did not stop there: since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, online disinformation and misinformation (particularly with regard to public health matters) have become societal and political issues of prime importance, with many official institutions – such as the European Commission, the United Nations, and even Pope Francis – issuing statements and guidelines to counter the spread of what the World Health Organization (WHO) has coined an “infodemic”.
To counter these concerning trends, different actors have developed various initiatives. Journalists and media specialists have launched fact-checking services, while politicians around the world are working on anti-misinformation legislation and online platforms are reinforcing their policies to counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation (see, for examples, the cases of Twitter and Facebook). Although these are commendable efforts, they all pose the same problem: they are easily discredited by detractors on the grounds that they are attempts to limit freedom of expression.
In this context, media literacy has emerged as the best way to overcome the dilemma between disinformation and freedom of expression. According to a definition from Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics (LSE), media literacy is “the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts”. Nowadays, media and information literacy is receiving an ever greater amount of attention in the online safety field, as demonstrated on Safer Internet Day (SID) 2021, where a high proportion of countries made the decision to centre their celebrations around the topics of information sharing, trust and reliability online, and disinformation, from the United Kingdom to Germany, Finland or Bulgaria, to quote only a few examples.
This means that the offer of informational and pedagogical resources on the topic keeps growing for teachers and educators looking to address disinformation and foster media literacy with their students. A range of resources on “Disinformation and fact-checking in times of COVID-19”, covering a variety of languages and age groups, have been created by the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres and are available on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal – and an even greater variety of resources can be found in the Better Internet for Kids resource gallery.
Additionally, the SELMA Toolkit offers a range of resources on media analysis and on media production which, although they focus primarily on online hate speech, are nonetheless a great way for young people to better understand the production of information.
Teachers and educators looking to learn more about disinformation and media literacy may be interested in the following editions of the BIK bulletin, the quarterly newsletter of the Better Internet for Kids project:
- June 2016 BIK bulletin – Media and information literacy
- June 2017 BIK bulletin – Fake news
- March 2019 BIK bulletin – Media literacy
- June 2020 BIK bulletin – Freedom of expression online in the age of disinformation
Finally, for education professionals willing to take it one step further and develop a participatory, whole-school social media literacy strategy, the recommendations from the sml4change project will be a good place to start.
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