Digital literacy: who’s going to lead the discussion?

By DaYoung Yoo

It has been several weeks since the UK House of Commons DCMS (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) Select Committee’s Disinformation and ‘fake news’: final report was released. The last chapter of the report is digital literacy, alternatively known as media literacy or information literacy.

Similar to this report, digital literacy is often suggested as a critical solution to combat problematic aspects of the current digital world by various groups. The House of Commons’ final report calls for actions to promote digital literacy from businesses, regulators and the government. It is time for them to respond.

As the report is about disinformation and ‘fake news’, discussion around digital literacy is also focused on data and news. Digital literacy, of course, covers a much wider array of dimensions of our lives including building relationship with others and nurturing one’s prowess in creativity.

Media literacy is not just about safety and security, it is also about maximising the positive potential of digital technology and connectivity. In other words, for technology companies, digital literacy is the enabler of what many of their missions state. It is one of the key components that could bring their company mission to life.

 For individuals, digital literacy, as the report states, is not an option anymore. People “need to be equipped with” the knowledge and ability to critically examine the accuracy and credibility of information with which they are presented.

They also “need to be aware of” their rights over personal data, and how to exercise such rights. In the current surveillance economy where data is the new oil and digital connectivity is the default setting of lives, digital literacy is vital. Ofcom, an independent UK regulator with a statutory duty to promote media literacy, also argues that media literacy is a pre-requisite, not simply an option.

The report proposes two approaches to help individuals become digitally literate. One is education, and the other is building technical measures into the system, for example, incorporating friction as the design principle or integrating a source rating system when presenting news.

A point to emphasise is that the two approaches should be carried out simultaneously. Education and technical solutions supplement and reinforce each other.

Without education to give individuals the capability to exercise their rights over data and privacy, and to critically examine what they see, read, and hear, technical measures cannot be as effective as they should be, and vice versa.  That is why scholars and opinion leaders who are advocates of digital literacy state that digital literacy, although it is imperative, cannot be a panacea.

Encouragingly, some technology companies have introduced their own portals for promoting digital literacy. Likewise, digital literacy is also taught in schools in the UK.

Equally, some technical measures have been adopted by technology companies (while others have been blocked). Regulators and government-affiliated organisations have also undertaken campaigns and research to promote digital literacy.

Yet, despite all these efforts, digital literacy is still discussed persistently as if it is the long-missing puzzle piece, as this report does. 

I take a different view and believe that the missing piece here is ensuring a collaborative effort approach, rather than scattered efforts here and there, taking place sporadically, as there are currently.  

As the House of Commons’ final report points out, technology companies, regulators and the government all have crucial roles to play in cultivating digital literacy. The report specifically recommends Ofcom, The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the Electoral Commission, and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to take "a united approach", to hold a public discussion on how individuals “are happy for their data to be used and shared”.

Firstly, technology companies should be part of this discourse as well. They are the ones designing and operating the systems and processing people’s data.

Secondly, a discussion on what should and can be done in practice is needed. For example, will having technical solutions to promote digital literacy in place incentivise such work to be effective, and encourage companies to adopt them? Then, what can regulators mandate the companies do in return?

Thirdly, the report implies that it should be government who leads this collaborative initiative. Instead, I believe that making sure this debate happens as soon as possible is more important than deciding who leads it.

Whoever leads the debate needs to make clear what their objectives are and what they want to be known for, which may include the potential for demonstrating genuine care and responsiveness to stakeholders. It is clear from the House of Commons report that stakeholders have numerous views that have been already presented through various channels.

So potential leaders in this debate need to have clarity over their goals and what they wish to champion in this crucial debate from issues like friction, levies, and investing more in education… Take it or leave it, it’s your choice—but remember—what do you want to be known for?

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