(Professor, Sorbonne Nouvelle University & UNESCO Chair “Savoir Devenir in digital development: mastering information cultures”)
COVID-19: Disinfodemic Insights
The COVID-19 crisis has not only been a health pandemic, it has also been a disinfodemic, with many “fake news” that show how information can be weaponized by all sorts of third parties and rogue actors that work to undermine the trust in scientific knowledge and professional journalism.
The disinfodemic can be analysed as an unprecedented life-size experiment of our strengths and weaknesses in the face of information in the digital era. It has tested our tolerance to what is bearable and tolerable in terms of manipulation of fears and emotion in democratic societies. The post COVID-19 situation makes us stand at a crossroads: either move towards a digital future of surveillance, traceability and monetisation of our actions or move towards a future of resilience, openness and digital citizenship with online freedoms.
The COVID-19 crisis has precipitated the double process that construes information as the fuel of the digital revolution. During the e-confinement, our lives have moved online and on screens: all our social functions (work, school, leisure, etc.) have been connected to networks and screens have mediated them with videoconferences, e-learning platforms, virtual globe-trotting and virtual visits to museums, concerts and so forth. The attendant risks have invited cyber-harassment, data theft, hate speech and disinformation.
The disinfodemic has made us conscious that reliable information is, literally, a matter of life or death. Eating garlic, drinking disinfectant or destroying 5G antennas to stave off the virus are detrimental fakes. Not adopting protective gestures as supported by some world leaders is lethal to the entire under-protected populations. Taking advantage of the situation in order to deal with cyberattacks on data, or destabilize countries by finger-pointing at some minority groups is also fraught with danger.
Relevance of Media and Information Literacy
Building resilience, openness and digital citizenship is part of what Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is about and the disinfodemic has precipitated the need for MIL solutions.
In this context of digital use and misuse of information, MIL can help facilitate the digital transition as democratic societies undergo the dual pressures of ubiquitous media and big data. Minimally, it can help expose the factors that lead to the creation and dissemination of such toxic material such as “fake news.” More ambitiously, it can unveil the patterns that drive individuals and communities to consume and disseminate fraudulent and falsified information.
MIL induces us to revisit our knowledge constructions and belief systems because it relies on critical thinking and focuses on how our minds work to construct, consume and contest media narratives online and offline.
MIL research has benefited from the disinformation crisis that started in 2016 with such scandals as Cambridge Analytica, which revealed the capacity for the manipulation of people’s choices via micro-targeted AI-driven political advertising campaigns.
Much like a disease can be used to understand the way a healthy body functions, the disinformation virus, by contaminating democratic institutions and individual choices, has revealed the information factory as it is driven by media and data in the digital era.
Four new insights on how our mind functions have come to the fore: the role of emotions (not logic) in the thought processes leading to knowledge-construction and decision-making; the power of image-driven content (not text) on many types of screens, including those of immersive virtual reality; the influence of algorithms and artificial intelligence (not human) to predict our future decisions based on our past ones online; and the strength of interactions between individuals and communities to authenticate information based on group-belonging influence and values (not proof and science).
These new insights shed a new light on the MIL competences required in a post-pandemic world to mitigate the negative impacts of such functions and harness their opportunities for positive change.
To deal with emotions, we need to be aware of how affective elements cause us to lend cognitive authority to others, especially when fear and anger are used to blind people in their search and use of proper information.
To deal with images, we have to go beyond pre-digital visual literacy (composition, contrast, camera angles, etc.) to assess the authenticity and trustworthiness of our sources as current ways of processing images (neuro-imaging, data visualization, deepfakes, etc.) can modify our perception of facts.
To deal with algorithms and their automated decisions based more on our navigation history and the popularity of news than on the quality of news and the force for evidence, we need to know about audience measurement that consists awareness metrics (impressions, views, clicks) and engagement metrics (likes, shares, comments).
To deal with interactions via ubiquitous social media platforms, we must see how they have a vested interest in producing fake news that generate traffic and profit and require transparency and accountability, if not downright dismantling of their de-facto monopoly on our data and media.
Paradigm Shift: MIL as 1st Curriculum
Online wellbeing thus depends on the way we balance our control over data analytics (trends, patterns, profiles, etc.) and our knowledge of the values, emotions and ideologies that construct and bias them, as it is essential to our connectedness and the way we engage with others. For instance, knowing the patterns of the COVID-19 spread via big data is an opportunity as long as the data collection is transparent and accountable, and not used for further purposes as exemplified by the controversies doubting the uses of the COVID-apps beyond the pandemic.
As notions of credibility, authenticity, authority, accountability and transparency take centre stage in the way we construct information and disinformation, the very notion of basic literacy is displaced.
The 1st curriculum of schools that focused mostly on text, logic and source verification, is fast becoming obsolete in the face of the emergency at hand. It needs to be completed or augmented with MIL; something that has been considered as a 2nd curriculum and an adjustment variable that could be called upon in times of crisis and dismissed after. MIL needs to be the 1st curriculum by default, as a trans-literacy, with its specific mix of text, visual and algorithmic literacy, as images and data become crucial elements of information, beyond news and fake news.
There is an urgent need for ready response to develop quick healthy reflexes or heuristics for young people and citizens at large as soon as doubts about the credibility of a piece of information appear. Heuristics is a critical thinking practice that involves using a tool to solve problems by “learning by doing” and trial-and-error methods. Combatting disinformation can be quite a messy problem-solving case that needs to become a common practice and not appear as a huge hurdle that seems beyond a solution.
This is the point of departure of the action-research that UNESCO Chair Savoir Devenir is conducting (savoirdevenir.net). A case in point is the Youcheck! project, funded by the European Union programme “Media Education for All” (www.project-youcheck.com). This civil society initiative relies on a key asset, the InVID visual verification plugin, which works to foster critical thinking about pictures and videos shared on social networks and help debunk fakes as a rapid response. It develops a toolbox with pedagogical materials and gamification to serve the needs of media educators, students and citizens at large. It is also research-based, an element often missing in good practices focused on implementation, with scientific evaluations of the impact of the toolbox on teachers and students as well as on a random sample of the adult population whose feedback matters to the InVID developers.
Fostering citizens’ agency with such smart tools as InVID and adopting a solution-oriented approach to debunk “fake news” appears as the most efficient way to change both people’s understanding of the disinfodemic phenomenon and their daily post-pandemic behaviour with regard to information. InVID is thus being repurposed, from an image and video checking technology reserved for professionals (used worldwide by many newsrooms, journalists and human rights workers) to a tool for nonexperts. Although, as most MIL practitioners, we do not support tool-based only educational approaches, we strongly believe that in our AI-driven digital world, being empowered by high-level smart tools is a necessity, if and only if technical skills are a support for MIL competences and human right values.
To ensure that such smart tools are embedded within the MIL competence framework, we have ensured that InVID functionalities are associated with visual and data literacy resources and training. InVID make it possible (1) to retrieve metadata about videos and images; (2) to fragment videos into key-frames to allow image-similarity search in other contexts; (3) to perform advanced search queries on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; (4) to compare the efficiency of search engines (Google, Yandex, Baidu, etc.); (5) to look inside images through a magnifying lens; and (6) to analyse an image with forensic filters (to detect alterations within its structure such as quantization, frequencies, colours and pixel coherence). All these itemized functionalities are matched to cognitive processes (retrieve, fragment, search laterally, compare across data sets, apply filters, etc.) and examined with many examples to ensure understanding and mastery.
A serious game, Youcheck Detectives, has been developed to encourage learning by doing and by playing (http://project-youcheck.com/game-english), with workshops for teachers and trainers. Several Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Information and Disinformation have been created to ensure that teachers, educators, librarians, journalists and others feel comfortable in these news competences. Optimizing the plug-in thanks to testing results and enriching it with pedagogical scenarios and self-paced tutorials, quizzes and games also makes it an available teaching gateway to MIL.
This is how we can concretely move between theory and practice, and ensure that research fosters reaction and, ultimately, refutation the test that MIL has empowered citizens to respond and to provide a counternarrative to disinformation. Such digital critical thinking strategies should be part of the MIL curriculum for digital citizenship.
This curriculum is crucial in the classroom but can also be shared in discussions with parents, politicians, human rights workers, etc. These functionalities lend themselves to many activities that can be developed by civil society associations ? such as hackathons, urban games, and fake news challenges.
Country Readiness: Preparing for Healthy Post-pandemic Media Ecosystem
As with any new literacy, the training of trainers is key for scaling up. Such experiments can be helpful for the design of materials for curriculum and for policymaking. The disinfodemic can show positive outcomes as the e-confinement has sensitized everybody both to the market-minded responsiveness of the e-learning and social media platforms and to the lack of preparedness of school systems at the local and national levels. The main points of vigilance around MIL deal with the lack of quality control regarding commercially-provided tools and contents and the lack of safety control regarding the use of data and the protection of privacy of minors.
The disinfodemic can be an opportunity for schools and institutions of education and culture to closely evaluate the adaptations necessary to ensure that MIL helps them develop strategies for the future, compliant with a certain number of international instruments with the best interests of young people and citizens in mind, such as the various declarations on data protection such as The Council of Europe Data Protection Convention 108 and Recommendation CM/Rec(2019)10 on developing and promoting digital citizenship education (2019).
Solid cooperation across actors is also called for, as MIL programmes often require the media industry sector to contribute their expertise and partnerships. Getting countries ready with a set of diagnosis tools and implementation strategies is at the heart of the Council of Europe Digital Citizenship Education Project (https://www.coe.int/en/web/digital-citizenship-education-project). Its main messages deal with the new insights opened up by disinformation, in relation to emotions, image-driven content and predictive algorithms. Rights and responsibilities are set as part of online wellbeing for all to ensure sustainable learning outcomes. Embedding MIL in the early design of services and contents becomes key to democratic societies as it fosters trust and solidarity.
As the consequences of the disinfodemic on democratic societies are still being determined, MIL appears as a beacon of hope that casts light in the outer reaches of our minds as they interact with media and data. Effective MIL activities and policies can have beneficial impacts at political and societal levels. Providing citizens with an understanding of algorithms, brain processes, data patterns and social networks can build information resilience on a large scale. Producing robust counter-discourses to climate change coverage, gender injustice, migrant crisis representations or virus pandemics prepares them for any emerging information disorders that may emerge in the future.