How can youth navigate the sea of disinformation to become good digital citizens?


“Trust in governments, politicians and in all major institutions including schools, doctors and hospitals, is in question. And in that context social media only serves to exacerbate the problem. There are huge challenges for all of us over what to believe and the pandemic has highlighted the fact that even the experts often aren't sure. In this context, it is vital that we support young people to engage as thoughtful and active participants in democracy,” says Joseph Kahne, Co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG) at the University of California.

Mr Kahne will join Mr Nelson Kwaje who works training youth in healthy online civic engagement in Cameroon, Ethiopia and South Sudan, and other experts exploring those challenges in a UNESCO webinar, The COVID-19 Pandemic of Disinformation and Hate Speech: How can Education and Digital Citizenship help?, held on Friday 5 June 2020.

The webinar will look at the dangers of misinformation and disinformation sparked by the COVID-19 crisis and proliferating online, initiatives from young people pushing back in favour of solidarity and citizenship, and the role played by education.  

Mr Kahne, whose work focuses on school practices and new media in relation to youth civic engagement and who helps coordinate the Teaching Channel’s Deep Dive on Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age which gathers related teacher resources such as the Digital Civics Toolkit, said:

“In just the case of the US and the pandemic, it’s hard to know what to believe. Polarisation and partisan identities are now the norm.  Education is supposed to be about preparing youth to make and interpret evidence and argument – that can be hard in this environment, but it is important.”

He said education that reached out to engage young people in ways that they understood was a powerful counterbalance.

“There is strong evidence that young people are open to help in finding out how to establish what is true and in learning the skills to get there. They are definitely not in denial about it,” he said.

Learning simple skills from more experienced practitioners such as reading outside and around a main source of information such as a website and giving students the opportunities to practice those skills had been seen to be effective.

“You also have to help people to be aware of their own biases and to research opposing and diverse opinions,' he said. 'The positive news is, that when education engages young people through social media in civic and societal issues, their interest increases,” he said.

Mr Kwaje leads #defyhatenow Digital Media and Training teams to create a space for people to express their opinions online in a civil way and without spreading disinformation that can lead to violence.  

He said it was important that online spaces for expression and dissent remained open but changed in nature. 

His organization works through monitoring the health of civil discourse online, training and advocacy. It then publishes social media health reports which are used to dialogue with policy-makers. Young people are trained in how to make an informed decision online and made aware of the deeper dangers of cyberbullying, trolling and dog whistling among others.

“Often the predominant approach to cleaning up the online space is deterrent or involves the mere reduction of harmful content. It can also be more extreme reactions where avenues of legitimate expression and dissent are closed, or the internet is shut down altogether in the name of reducing hate speech which is not a long-term solution.

What is more important is to create spaces and avenues that give room to healthy expression, to change toxic spaces, which act as divisive echo chambers that might lead to hatred, to civil spaces.

'When people have access to the right information, feel their voices and legitimate grievances are heard, and that that leads to meaningful changes, they are less susceptible to other less civil means of expression,” he said.

“The places where young people spend most time online and where governments and institutions interact are by default very different and the gap is getting wider. It is very naive for policy-makers to ignore the ways that young people use to interact. And the providers could also act more responsibly in how they engage with them.” 

Both Mr Kahne and Mr Kwaje stressed that young adults, as much as anyone else, sometimes had limited interest in the traditional academic content related to government processes, but were eager to engage when legal and societal issues were made relatable.

“Not a lot of young people are reading the constitution every morning,” said Mr Kwaje.” But they can still be interested in information about tax or government corruption when it relates to their lives.”