We use the internet for everything – from dating and gossip to hobbies and work. We also, crucially and increasingly, use it to form our most basic and closely held views about the world. And there is a huge amount of bad, wrong, misleading and malicious information, often masquerading as the genuine article.
Teachers are worried that young people are not being equipped to tell the difference. The 500 teachers polled rated their pupils’ ability to recognise bias, apply fact checks and verify sources to be below average.
Other surveys indicate that around one in four 12-15 year olds make no checks at all when visiting a new website.
Some form of ‘digital fluency’, encompassing both traditional critical thinking skills and specific knowledge about how the online world (say, how search engines operate) works needs to be put at the heart of education.
This issue reminds me a little of when I first started studying film at uni. We were grandly – and, in the event, quite rightly – informed we would learn not how to “watch” a film but how to “read” a film. And yet what was most interesting was how much film language we already knew. You try and imagine now what it would be like to see a Hollywood film for the first time – and if you can properly imagine it, you’d know how lost you would feel. Film is so ever-present that – as a language and medium – it has entered our very souls; to such an extent we may even dream in its cross-cutting, close-up and cutaway techniques.
I know I certainly do.
It does occur to me, however, that perhaps this call to digital literacy – similar in appearance and apparent sensibility to the industrially spoonfed and popcorned moviegoers of the 20th century, with their film schools, film studies and film festivals – is not a little misplaced. Most young people, I would imagine, studies and surveys notwithstanding, are much better positioned to understand and sense Internet falsehoods than their elders who still read the Daily Mail and the Sun. And if they aren’t, then it’s precisely what they’ve experienced in the home through their parents use of mainstream media which has led them to uncritically take as read the stories they come across when surfing the Internet with their smartphones.
The real problem isn’t a virtual digital literacy, then – but, rather, a far longer and deeper tradition than that: knowing how to count on ten offline and real-world fingers.
And those who really need the kind of digital literacy I am talking about are those voters in that section of society who believe every supporting prejudice their cosy columnists choose to write about.