There is a word that is often used when we talk about social media or any media on digital platforms really: the rabbithole. It refers to how Alice -from Alice in Wonderland- found herself in a rabbithole that led her to adventures in interesting and often dark areas of the author’s imagination – that had nothing to do with where she began. I believe it is the perfect word to describe what has happened to what is today perceived as “information”. The search for news, or simply the truth -ie is the water we drink safe? Is it safe to send unvaccinated children to school? How can climate change affect our planet? -Should elicit fairly straightforward replies, based on facts. But more often than not, we are sent down a rabbithole of opinions, counter-opinions, and “fake news” where it is impossible even for the most educated reader or consumer of social media to untangle fact from fiction or propaganda.
Don’t get me wrong – that rabbithole can also be the source of interesting, varied and enriching pieces of information, those same items that mean that our children today are far more savy on a variety of topics than we may have been at their age. But that is also the problem: how do we get those useful pieces, how do we know which pieces are useful and how do we distinguish what is safe and reliable, from what isn’t?
The veracity of the vast landscape of digital information is facing a crisis. With unfettered access to information, an ever-growing global audience is on the receiving end of content of unknown origin that caters to the most diverse of interests and intentions.
Recent advancements in technology have, over the years, led to continuous and uninterrupted access to mobile information sources or “information on-the-go” if you will, thereby empowering a vocal digital citizenry and civil society. This created the need to provide media and information literacy education in tandem with the growing dependability on a vast, fluid, unconventional landscape of content that proliferates and continues to occupy our everyday life, for good, a lot of the time, but not always.
Communicating in the digital arena poses challenges and necessitates the provision of tools and training to the youth who are both the consumers and producers of this seemingly infinite borderless content.
The Jordan Media Institute has led the task of developing the competencies of Jordanians to create a more discerning digital citizenry with critical thinking skills for navigating the continuous barrage of content in a 24/7 accessible news and information cycle.
Please allow me to share with you a short video showcasing only ONE of our MIL projects with teenagers that was implemented in partnership with PBS and supported by the Carnegie Corporation.
JMI launched Jordan’s MIL journey in 2013. At the time, top students of the MA in Journalism and New Media participated in Austria’s annual Salzburg Global Academy on Media & Global Change focusing on Media Literacy. From that moment on, and for the following years until the Pandemic suspended these activities, JMI took advantage of the interest and momentum generated and was also given the opportunity to send dozens of MA students and staff to MDLAB in Lebanon every year. MIL trainings progressed and took a more concrete turn with the UNESCO Media and Information Literacy Project that JMI was commissioned to implement in 2016, supported by the EU. This project was the first of its kind in Jordan to be implemented on a national scale: it encompassed many sectors and for a year and a half, focused on engaging decision-makers and the academic community on the critical need for MIL skills and competencies for all citizens. It involved the training of 24 teachers from eight public schools, who in turn established MIL clubs at those schools, along with JMI MIL trainers, for more than 120 students from grades 7-9, including Syrian refugees.
Furthermore, the team at JMI developed the first Arabic language MIL school syllabus for teachers, university textbook, training materials, as well as a Public Policy Paper to provide guidance to policy-makers and advocate for integrating MIL in schools and universities. JMI received an endorsement from the Ministry of Higher Education which has encouraged Jordanian universities to integrate MIL into the study plans of education faculties, including Al Al-Bayt University. All these efforts earned JMI the UNESCO GAPMIL Award for 2018.
The feedback from school teachers and school pupils and university students was so positive, and it was so encouraging to see how empowering it was to them, to have that extra knowledge which allowed them to navigate social media with these additional critical thinking skills - it was clear that this was one of the single most important services our Institute could provide to our nation.
To make sure the programme would be diffused to the rest of the Kingdom, in 2018, JMI drafted a strategic framework for introducing MIL on a national scale targeting four sectors, namely, schools; universities and faculty; CSOs; and youth and youth centers. This strategic framework and its executive plan from 2019-2022 was adopted by the government which in turn formed a national team of stakeholders to oversee the implementation of this ambitious three-year project that will be carried out by JMI as the implementing partner to the government.
JMI has also had the privilege of further developing its MIL platform in a strategic partnership with DW Akademie, building and enhancing the capacity of educational institutions, public school teachers and students in MIL under the National MIL Initiative and the set Executive Plan for 2020-2023. “MIL 4 Jordan”, has trained in MIL skills and concepts nearly 240 teachers across all 12 governorates and was implemented based on the developed training manuals for teachers and students. This year, as part of that programme, TOT workshops are being implemented for 90 teachers in Media and Information Literacy, across Jordan.
JMI also conducted training workshops for Civil Society Organisations, journalists and media outlets to promote the support for rights and freedoms in Jordan through media literacy and empowering a more discerning cadre of media content producers and consumers.
But a lot still remains to be done.
Social media and accessibility of the digital media landscape have invariably led to the rise of citizen journalism which empowered voices across the diverse spectrum of society to speak up and engage across platforms transcending all physical boundaries. The democratization of this medium of communication has magnified the critical importance of Media and Information Literacy as information continues to flow, unabated, whether its veracity has been confirmed or not. Whereas the journalism professionals operate in the proverbial trenches of investigative reporting using facts and data, we have all seen how the digital landscape has also become a source of unreliable and potentially agenda-setting propagandist disinformation giving rise to conspiracy theories, fake news and deep fakes.
For example, the COVID pandemic has laid bare the harmful impact that intentional dissemination of mis/disinformation can have on public health. Recipients are often unaware of the effects that come with consumption of material meant to misdirect and mis-inform.
Reporting misinformation has also become a very important tool in this respect: last week a news item appeared in the Huffington Post revealing how teenagers have been hired to spread far-right conspiracy theories including anti-vaccine propaganda and to run ads for the benefit of the Trump campaign’s “Election Defense Fund.” This is an item we know of because it has been researched and reported on. But how many of these occurrences happen in other countries that are not reported? There is only so much that proper investigative reporting can do to highlight these perversions of news. Counting on proper awareness and giving the youth the tools to discern fact from opinion and right from wrong are the best ways of countering ills like abuse, hate speech and all forms of discrimination and disinformation, for example, that circulate on social media while respecting freedom of expression.
MIL training offers avenues to raise awareness on a variety of issues that can help our youth as they navigate specific situations in each of their communities. Which is why JMI has also implemented programs to combat bullying, hate speech, countering extremism with its potential impact on undiscerning youth/consumers, gender-sensitivity, gender-based violence, and more. The critical thinking element in the training, is key.
While social media platforms continue to grapple with the power they yield and its other facet, the infodemic promulgated through their users, we believe that MIL training and the entrenching of critical MIL skills continues to be a strategic goal and mission and we look forward to JMI’s role and impact being expanded upon through regional and global partnerships.
We can work more efficiently to redress this perverse effect of digital technology on societies, and communities, by establishing and cementing cooperation and partnerships in countering the narratives of disinformation, while maintaining its advantages in the dissemination of accurate news and promoting freedom of expression.
We can work together toward a more intentionally informed digital landscape. One that is capable of weeding out the maligned actors and promoting accurate, solution-based journalism, for example, as DW Akademie is doing. So that news offers constructive avenues of understanding. And so that anyone going down a rabbit hole, has the tools to step back, and remain aware that it is just that, a rabbit hole in which, more often than not, one from which we can learn to emerge without losing our grip on reality.
When so much is at stake, that hinges on the truth, there can be no shortcuts in media and information literacy. The cost of not raising awareness is too high to not be considered.
Investing in MIL is investing in stability, in social equality, in peace and mutual understanding and in the promotion of humanistic values that open doors to healthy debates, while keeping our societies safe.
Thank you very much