Literacy in the digital world - why it needs to be everyone's business

| By Terry Brake

What is digital literacy?

I’ve been saying for quite some time that because young people – our “digital natives” – are very familiar with using new technologies doesn’t mean that they can use them in a sophisticated, literate, way.  ‘Literacy’ has traditionally been known as the ability to read and write and, more recently, the ability to search and retrieve information using new tools like social media.  Some of us have even talked about ‘digital literacy’ as the ability to choose the right digital media for the right job, e.g. mixing up the use of digital tools to keep a team engaged, informed, and coordinated.

If we are going to increase digital and information literacy, however, we have to go deeper than search and retrieve or media choice.  This has become all too apparent during the recent US presidential election and the UK EU referendum.  The gullibility of many people to fake news and misinformation is quite astounding.  

News vs. advertising

recent study by Stanford University of 7,800 students from middle school through to college found that 80% could not distinguish between a piece of sponsored content (“native advertising”) and a real news article.  Students also had difficulty determining whether a news story shared on social media was credible; they often based their decision on irrelevant factors like, for example, the size of an accompanying picture.  When you also consider that 62% of US adults get their news from social media the situation is alarming.  Facebook only sees itself a platform, not a publisher, and so journalistic standards (whatever they are these days) don’t apply.  Google wraps us in algorithmic ‘filter bubbles’ that reinforce what we want to hear and read about.  Truth becomes what we want it to be.

Post-truth

It is sometimes said that we have entered the era of ‘post-truth’; this term was actually chosen as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries (its usage had a 2000% increase in 2016).  Facts are seen by some as simply opinions, and any opinion is as good as any other whether they are backed up with evidence or not.  It’s nonsense, of course.  If I borrow money from you and you want it back, can I legitimately say, “No, its mine.”  If you argue that it’s rightfully yours, can I then truthfully say, “That’s just your opinion.” Some of us have had experiences with people like that, and we quite rightly call them ‘liars’.  If any statement is as valid as any other, the world is in serious trouble.  If a group of people took a dislike to your company and posted false news about your products across the Internet, would you expect your executives to say, “That’s just someone’s opinion.”  Or would you expect your executives to fight to communicate the truth?  The problem is, a great deal of damage could have been done already. 

The danger of fake news

Back in early November of last year, Wikileaks released emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.  In one of the emails, the name of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant owner was mentioned. He’s a big Democratic Party supporter who has raised money for Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.  His name appeared in Podesta’s emails in relation to Democratic fundraisers.  The name of the owner caught the attention - as the BBC said, “of prankster sites and people on the paranoid fringes” because he was once in a relationship with a well-known liberal operative.  From this - again in the BBC’s words - “an enormous trove of conspiracy fiction was spun.”  A story was faked that connected Hillary Clinton, Podesta, and the restaurant owner with the running of a pedophile ring - from the non-existent pizzeria’s basement.  Absolutely no evidence was or has been put forward that could validate this story, but given the nature of social media it spread globally at Internet speed.

On Sunday, December 4, 2016 a man walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle and shots were fired.  Fortunately, no one was killed, although an employee was threatened.  The owner has also received death threats, and messages that his restaurant should be burned to the ground. Other near-by businesses have also been threatened.  This is terrorism, plain and simple. 

My wife and I have eaten in the restaurant many times, and we look forward to going back there.     

Societies and businesses cannot function successfully without trust between numerous stakeholders. We must all be vigilant and courageous when separating lies and opinion from truth.

Author: Terry Brake

Terry has designed, developed, and delivered 100s of training programs for Fortune 1000 companies in many areas: global teamwork, global leadership, global cultural diversity, and general management skills. Many of these programs were delivered in traditional classrooms, but increasingly they are in virtual classrooms. To find out more click here.

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