In 2017, over half the world’s population was already online. However, rapidly evolving digital technology has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots – those with access to information and those without.

The deepening gap in digital media literacy

Feature. In the era of misinformation, digital literacy skills are needed more than ever before. Most countries around the world have adopted media literacy education at various levels. However, despite the urgent need, many developing economies are lagging behind.

Pia Heikkilä Photo Pexels, Pia Heikkilä

11.10.2018

From political activists in Turkey to rice farmers in Bangladesh, the internet has changed the lives of billions of people since its emergence in the mid-90s. The medium today influences every aspect of our lives – from health to financial well-being, culture and politics.

All over the world, the internet is allowing people to search for information and ideas and help them make things happen – opportunities that never could have been realised before.

“Society has evolved, we have gained benefits from these developments and it has given us more capacity than ever before,” said Tessa Jolls, President of the Center for Media Literacy, based in the USA.

Digital literacy means having the ability to use technology to find resources, critically evaluate these sources and create information. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO sees digital literacy a necessary life skill to succeed in today’s technology-driven world.

 Disinformation can harm development

The internet has not only brought enormous benefits to humankind but has also divided people.  Rapidly evolving digital technology has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots – those with access to information and those without.

Media literacy is formally defined by the ability to evaluate information and participate in media messaging. Today, however, in the era of misinformation and fake news, digital literacy skills are needed more than ever, say the experts.

“We need skills and practice to be able to process this infinite amount of information, but at the same time we are all media producers, which means we need to know how to process the messages we are creating ourselves. The role of the gatekeeper is no longer as relevant as it was, and as a result, the dynamics of media has changed,” says Jolls.

Today media and technology mediate most of the information people need for decision-making.

Despite the fact that the internet is a new invention in our history, critical media literacy has always been crucial.

According to Alton Grizzle, co-manager of UNESCO’s global actions on media and information literacy, on the one hand, there is an amplification of disinformation while on the other hand new information flows bring better opportunities for the engagement, tolerance and social inclusion of citizens.

“It helps people to unlock the information they receive, making it relevant to their needs and lives. It’s like a GPS navigating the new information and communication landscape that converges in virtual and physical spaces,” he says.

UNESCO has created Global Alliance for Partnerships on Media and Information Literacy (GAPMIL), which is an effort to promote international cooperation and to ensure that all citizens have access to media and information competencies.

Despite the fact that the internet is a new invention in our history, critical media literacy has always been crucial.

“If you think about a simple logo and what it is trying to convey, the way it comes across already gives us a message. Now, however, there has been an enormous shift in the quality and quantity of information that is available for us and that we have to process on a daily basis. Because all of this is in the palm of our hand, the need for critical thinking in this age of information revolution is greater than ever before,” says Jolls.

 Media literacy can help to bring about more equal societies

Globally there are 4.1 billion internet users in a world population of 7.6 billion in 2017, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which means over half the world’s population is online.

Access to internet varies by region, however.  Across Asia, the figure is just under 50%, in Africa 35%, Latin America 67% and North America over 95%.

Device usage varies too. In Western countries, access has evolved from tabletop machines via laptops to hand-held devices. Not so with the developing world, where people went from nothing to 24-hour access via mobile phones. Mobile phone technology now accounts for four out of every five internet connections, according to ITU.

Each person brings their own narrative to whatever material they are viewing or reading.

Once people have access to information – be it in the middle of an African village or in Manhattan – there is no fundamental or crucial differences in how people experience the same media message, and a person’s background or location does not play an important role in media literacy. Experts say that there are as many ways to read media as there are people.

Media and information literacy concerns everyone, irrespective of his or her background and status.

“Each person brings their own narrative to whatever material they are viewing or reading. Although the text is static, how it’s received is variable because we are all different and reading and understanding the message is down to the individual,” Tessa Jolls says.

Weighing each part of the media content and device puzzle is important.

“Some stakeholders focus on information, others on media and some on technology. The danger is over-emphasis on only one of these while ignoring the others. Another important issue is for stakeholders not to focus only on the challenges of media and technology, but to place even greater emphasis on the benefits,” says Alton Grizzle.

Digital literacy can help women to have access to better education and improve their literacy skills.

Media literacy training in developing economies still evolving

Most countries around the world have adopted media literacy education at various levels, but developing economies still lag behind.

Until recently the Arab region, for instance, had no media literacy programmes. In 2013, however, the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (MDLAB) was established precisely to address this problem.

In the Arab world, where situation and alliances can change rapidly, getting access to correct information is key.

Citizens of a media illiterate society will no doubt be misguided to work against their interests and in the long run against the well-being of their society and the world.

“Media literacy can help temper the negative influences of various media and their abuse and promote a critical global citizenry able to see through the propaganda and serve its interests while upholding human rights and social justice,” says Jad Melki, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and Chair of the Department of Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University (LAU).

Since 2013, MDLAB has trained over 400 media university academics, school teachers, journalists and activists, has produced several curricula rooted within Arab cultures and concerns and, as of 2018, has been able to introduce media literacy courses into 60 Arab universities and schools.

Training adults in media skills is crucial everywhere.

“Citizens of a media illiterate society will no doubt be misguided to work against their interests and in the long run against the well-being of their society and the world,” says Melki.

The internet is an open doorway to tangible benefits such as education and employment opportunities. Being able to read information critically can further enhance these advantages and help empower people.

“People will not only be able to see through propaganda and harmful information and media habits, but will also be effective in voicing their beliefs, and advocating for social justice and a better society and world through the use of various media tools and technologies,” notes Melki.

Women benefiting from digital literacy

Illiteracy – both in the traditional sense and in the critical reading of media – is a key barrier to empowerment that affects women more than men.

Bringing women into the mainstream of the digital revolution can empower them, and creating access to information gives choices and opportunities that they have never had before. They may get job opportunities and their families and entire communities can help.

Digital literacy even has the potential to give women access to better education or improve their entire family’s living conditions, as the female of the house learns new skills and increases her knowledge.

Access to technology can help promote equality, free expression, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, even peace.

In addition, there is a researched link between a woman’s level of education and the size of families.  When women are more educated, they are likely to have less children, which in turn can help in reversing the trend of expanding populations in the world’s poorest countries.

Through media literacy competencies, people in the developing and developed world are better equipped to search for, critically evaluate, use and contribute information and media content wisely.

“They become more aware of their rights online, and are able to combat online hate speech, intolerance and cyberbullying. They are able to understand the ethical issues surrounding the access to and use of information, managing how their actions online affect others,” says Grizzle.

Access to technology can help promote equality, free expression, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, even peace.

Adult education still lagging behind

For adults, learning media literacy isn’t simply about giving them access to a device and expecting it to bring about benefits. Quality media training, maintenance of technology and the reliability of power all matter.

In fact, several high-profile tech companies have launched global initiatives to increase access to internet for children in the world’s poorest countries by providing digital training programmes.  Adults, however, are still lagging behind.

Media and information literacy opens the door to dialogue, advocacy and hopefully solutions to benefit entire communities.

Platforms are always evolving and there is always something to learn.  We are already focusing much effort on media literacy as part of our school education for youth, but in fact, it’s just as important to teach adults and give them the needed skills,” says Jolls.

Media and information literacy opens the door to dialogue, advocacy and hopefully solutions to benefit entire communities.

“It is equally relevant to people with access to technologies and to those without. Significantly, it can help to prepare the remainder of the world’s population, so that they do not get lost when they finally get access to more information and technology,” says Grizzle.

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