We live in the online world but know little about it. What influence do our online choices have? DW Akademie's Latin America team wants you to discuss these issues during their MIL Campus events.
We look at our phones first thing in the morning and check our social media feeds one last time before going to sleep. The information we receive throughout the day is overwhelming. We have never had such direct access to information, but quantity does not equal quality. Information and the media can be powerful allies when it comes to improving our lives but they can also quickly become our worst nightmare.
Key questions include how to process this flood of information and how to raise our voices amidst the noise, as well as how to prevent our decisions from being manipulated and hate speech from becoming the norm. Addressing these challenges is crucial in countries such as Guatemala, where the average age is just 20 years and the rate of violent deaths is one of the highest in the world. This combination of youth and crime increases media-related risks. Sharing private information on social media can easily provide targets for kidnapping and extortion.
Trying to find the formula to address these issues is the goal of MIL Campus 2020, a digital meeting organized by DW Akademie. It began with two sessions rich in eye-opening and inspiring personal experience. In the opening session, five media and education experts highlighted the importance of critical thinking and making the use of media a pillar of new generations’ education, both at home and in schools. In the second session, the spotlight was shone on racism in the media. A group of professionals showed the less friendly side of social media using the example of popular memes. Both sessions were accompanied by the much-needed voice of the audience.
Learning to read and write is essential in the modern world but the meaning of literacy is no longer limited to forming words. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is not just about using a smartphone or finding the right information online. It's about how to identify fake news, protect yourself from anonymous cyberbullies and trolls and create online content without revealing private information that makes you vulnerable.
In some countries, the use of media is already an integral part of educational programs and school curricula. Yet, in many regions of the world, MIL remains a pending skillset. Most of the world's population is still "illiterate" when it comes to understanding the media, even if we spend much of our days looking at screens. To top it all off, the COVID-19 pandemic left millions of children and young people around the world trapped in their homes. In Latin America, 165 million students were unable to continue their in-person lessons. While some of them access online classes using digital technologies, for the vast majority, the lockdown has meant the interruption of their education and access to technology remains a barrier.
It is also essential to include MIL in the field of education and to invest in teacher training. "We need teachers who can teach their students to develop critical thinking," said Maria del Carmen Aceña, former minister of education in Guatemala. Viral content is the best example. It often involves fake news and appeals mainly to our emotions rather than our rational side. Therefore, it is important to think twice before sharing any content. As Cristina Soto, an MIL expert at Asociación Comunicares, said: "Viral content tends to adhere to our emotions, rather than to something that involves our analysis."
All information carries an intention. It can be honest, but it can also be driven by political or other interests. Every time we share content without verifying its origin or questioning its purpose, we are contributing to misinformation. MIL enables people to assess that intention and prevent them from falling into the trap of encouraging these forms of disinformation or discrimination. Knowing how to read and write also means being able to express an opinion without offending anyone or violating any rights.
Although everyday actions like forwarding messages on WhatsApp or sharing content on Facebook may seem innocent, they have an impact that we are only beginning to understand. Oneida Rodas from Comunicares shared how, unfortunately, cyberbullying can lead to young people taking their own lives. "For teenagers, the digital world is their reality," said Rodas. In fact, since the line between these two worlds is so thin, hate speech in social media often becomes a real threat. For example, violent groups use these platforms to coordinate, said Roberto Rojas, head of the vulnerable groups section in the department of social inclusion at the Organization of American States (OAS).
"Oh, come on! It's just a joke." Underneath such claims there may be behavior that invites discrimination, yet it circulates on the internet with impunity. Memes, for example, are involved in many racist or sexist attacks that we all consume without concern. However, these messages are shaping our values and increasing the vulnerability of groups that suffer discrimination. Online racism is particularly worrying in ethnically and linguistically diverse countries, as Esther Mamani of the Bolivian network ATB pointed out, and is easily promoted by the lack of regulatory frameworks for social media. Identifying and reporting hate speech remains a major challenge. "Under the guise of the right to speak, there are people who believe they have the right to discriminate," said Mamani. And MIL is the road to overcoming that challenge.
Discrimination exists regardless of social media, as Cristina Soto said. However, online platforms are the ideal amplifier for hate speech. The only way to prevent it from spreading and to increase our online safety is to be critical of the content on these platforms. Young people are especially vulnerable to misinformation and the risks associated with social media but they also have the power to reshape their relationship with the online world."Young people's conscience is not asleep, we must know how to capture and lead it," said Esther Mamani. Young people only need a push to become active and MIL is the driving force behind that push.
MIL Campus is an online meeting with the media and the audience that can be seen every Thursday and Saturday in October and November on DW Akademie Latin America’s social media platforms.