Let’s get critical!

Cello David

A recent report published by the Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee stated that we are in the midst of an online ‘pandemic of misinformation’ which threatens our democracy. This may seem silly and many of us believe we can instinctively recognise fact from fake, but with the rising saturation of information it is getting increasingly difficult to differentiate between what is true and what is not. Among many of the recommendations, there is a call for “a new focus on ‘digital media literacy’ in both schools and adult education, to ensure we are better equipped to identify misinformation online”.

Our reliance on technology, whether in the classroom, at work or in our personal lives has increased significantly over the last decade and lockdown has doubled-down this dependency. Most of us rely on the advancement of technology and the role it has played in our lives – from connecting us to our family and friends to keeping children educated whilst schools were closed, however this is where we start to see its pitfalls. The internet is undoubtedly a useful and important source of information, but an unreliable one, and perhaps even a dangerous one when used without an appropriately critical eye.

While we assume we have the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate these dangers, many of us don’t. For example, have you ever shared an article without properly reading it, or repeated information as a fact from a headline you’ve seen pop up on your newsfeed, or believed a claim you have seen online without verifying its source?  I’m certainly guilty of all these. Additionally, many of us probably have at least one friend who’s completely convinced by a conspiracy theory they have been fed online. So, if as adults we are not able to navigate these issues effectively, then how can we expect this from our children and the younger generations to?

The simple answer is we can’t, unless we teach young people the skills they need to safely navigate information online. It is important that the Department for Education (DfE) incorporates critical digital literacy into our national curriculum and provides schools with the resources necessary to teach these skills, especially now, when it looks like online learning and blended models are going to play a larger role in education than ever before.

If the younger generation are not taught how to spot misinformation, it is not just their education that can suffer, it is society as a whole. Recently a lie spread across the Internet about Coronavirus being ‘a hoax designed to erode our rights’ which led many to protest against lockdown, putting all those who attended at risk of catching the potentially fatal virus. Similarly, recent misinformation spread about 5G towers led to vigilantes going out and burning down phone masts. Teaching young people the critical skills necessary to work out the difference between what is a trustworthy source of information and what is not, will help prevent them from believing potentially dangerous mistruths.

Simply being told don’t trust everything you read online doesn’t cut it either. The sheer quantity of misinformation circulating the Internet can be overwhelming. The commonly cited phrase “knowledge is power” is dependent on recognising the validity of that information. The ability to know what is true and what is false underpins our democracy;  it is key to accountability. For example, if read on one site that a politician promised to deliver ‘x’, but they instead delivered ‘y’ or nothing at all this could influence our vote. However, another source reports the opposite, where does that leave our ability to make an informed decision?

Incorporating critical digital literacy into our schools’ curriculum is something the DfE should take very seriously, not just for the sake of our younger generation but for society itself. Education is the only way we can combat this very real and growing threat.

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