The internet has allowed many of us to work and go about our ordinary lives despite the COVID-19 pandemic. But amid fake news and lies, media and information literacy is increasingly important tools in this digital age.
The internet has allowed people around the globe to work from home and join company conference remotely, while also providing opportunities for the young to attend virtual classes in their bedrooms. Much of our social life has gone digital in 2020, too. Not to mention following the latest news and updates regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
Within weeks of the outbreak, millions of people had no choice but to shift many of their daily activities over to the digital sphere. This way, communication channels have remained open, and workflows operational.
But this has change has also introduced people to new threats: Viral misinformation, privacy violations and increased fear of censorship are just a few of the many challenges that people will now have to face. Yet many people lack the skills and knowledge to protect themselves against these new dangers. One of the solutions to address these issues is Media and Information Literacy (MIL).
This year's Global Media Forum (GMF) brought together three experts to discuss these and related issues in cooperation with DW's Akademie:
Koliwe Majama, a Media, Information, Communications and Technologies consultant from Zimbabwe, Osama Manzar, the Co-Founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation in India, Michael Tecklenburg, representative of the Division for Media, Culture, Creative Industries and Sport in Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
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Osama Manzar said the upcoming US presidential election was an illustration of just how much is at stake. Voters, he said, faced an "avalanche of information," curated to their respective, digital user profiles — much of it evoking strong emotions, rather than providing nuanced, fact-based information.
Michael Tecklenburg, meanwhile, argued that reactions to the global pandemic in particular had precipitated a "global media crisis" that has produced a flood of misinformation. This is why, he stressed, MIL is so essential now. Osama Manzar added, however, that roughly half of humanity was still not even connected to the internet.
He specified that in India, even less than half of all people in India had access to the world wide web. Even so, he said, whatever happens online also has an immediate impact on the analogue world. The digital realm, he stressed, nevertheless "affects our cultural life, our traditions, our education system, our economy — just about everything."
Read more: Empowering young people — and adults — to tell fake news from facts
Koliwe Majama, meanwhile, made clear that many African states control which information is made available to the public.
On top of this, the expert said, not all countries have strong economies conducive to setting up a digital infrastructure. With such a lack of access to news and information online, young people are in particular danger of believing false reports and rumors that cloud their minds.
Majama said that in her native Zimbabwe, certain regions still do not even have electricity. She therefore recommended the creation of so-called "community networks," whereby one internet connection is shared by a local group. Only then could media and information literacy begin to affect such communities to the extent that it is already an issue in more urbanized areas.
Michael Tecklenburg said that state-run and private development agencies are aware of the importance of digital media in promoting not only access to information but also in facilitating sustainable growth in disparate regions of the planet. This is why the BMZ and the DW Akademie foster access to reliable, accurate information in various different countries through projects and collaborations designed to equip and empower the local citizenry to base decisions on better information.
Michael Tecklenburg stressed that MIL is not just a matter of supporting democratic processes but also a sustainability issue
The ministry has just launched a program designed to help strengthen local media outlets, and foster MIL. Germany, which contributes €30 million ($35 million), is one of the project's biggest supporters. Sweden, the US and the UK are also major contributors, he added.
Osama Manzar is part one such MIL project, an Indian program that involves villagers being coached in media and information literacy, who then pass on their know-how to neighbors and friends. He added that this examples shows how much could be achieved with relatively limited financial resources. Manzar said that MIL is an absolute necessity today, as much of our lives today depend on using the internet and utilizing the information that is available at the click of a button. That is why, he stressed, fostering MIL should be at the top of our agenda.
But Koliwe Majama said despite growing access to online tools, many African countries do still not have a varied media landscape. Issues such as the cost of data plans on smartphones often limit the amount of information available to many people in that part of the world. She stressed that media diversity was far from being the only challenge there:
"We can talk much about media and information literacy — the cost of and access to the internet still remain major hurdles."