Marju Himma: Inoculation against digital infections takes constant effort

Marju Himma.
Marju Himma. Source: Kairit Leibold /ERR

Various strains of the virus of misinformation flooded the world about five years ago. It seemed hopeless to try and combat misleading information and lies that washed over the media and especially social media. And yet, we have done quite nicely for ourselves – a good measure of the time needed to develop immunity against an information phenomenon.

Today, a third-grader can read about the dangers of the internet and misinformation from a school textbook. Skills for handling different forms of bullying are woven into almost all subjects. Most people know that if a piece of news lacks the original source, it should not be trusted. Many people's online hygiene includes not sharing content of dubious value on social media.

Of course, there are still people who believe that if they are alone in front of the screen, they are alone on the internet and permit themselves to act in ways that are not publicly acceptable. Luckily, people in Estonia are increasingly finding that the internet is subject to the same rules of courtesy as other kinds of social interaction.

Whereas digital natives or kids and young people often have a clearer perception for the norms of digital culture than adults these days. Studies have shown that young people clearly separate their digital persona from their physical one and can adjust their behavior accordingly.

Food for thought here. Ethical norms have usually been laid down by adults, while it would be sensible to listen to and emulate children and young people when it comes to the digital world as they have grown up in these environments.

Different strains of digital infections

Strategies for handling misinformation are widely known today, while it won't hurt to go over them once more.

1. Check the original source when it comes to highly unusual or anxiety-inducing information. Also check the background of the publication or social media channel.

2. Do not limit yourself to headlines. Conclusions drawn from "natural intelligence" based on headlines alone are misleading and telling others about something based on the headline alone makes one complicit in creating and disseminating false information.

3. Check whether the content can be a prank, published at a different time and in different context, especially when it comes to photos and videos. A photo of unrest in London could easily be from a decade ago, while it can add to panic and constitutes misinformation if circulated today.

4. Learn to use image and video recognition software that help find original sources of online material.

5. Take time to read articles on media literacy in ERR's Meediataip section. (Most not available in English – ed.)

Of the various forms of information disorders, the fact that advertising can also constitute misinformation is perhaps the least obvious. Serums that promote hair growth, capsules that help fight cancer and soundwaves with the potential of cleaning the air could be recognized as snake oil but often aren't.

Misinformation in the form of advertising usually prays on older people, while young people are often unable to recognize social media content that is influenced by advertisers or interest groups. A good example of this is the need for guidelines telling social media influencers to clearly mark sponsored posts.

Young people do not yet realize that their entertainment activity on social media might be tied to advertising that is subject to the Advertising Act. It is even more difficult to grasp the responsibility of an influencer should they be disseminating false information.

We are looking for ways to boost the media literacy of young and older people simultaneously in the SMaRT-EU project. While one can offer trainings to pensioners and teenagers, our hypothesis is that the most effective approach is to have them exchange information.

When a teenager helps their grandparent to understand a fraudulent scheme in exchange for an explanation of how topics that are making the news have been handled decades ago, a highly valuable information transfer is taking place. This kind of relatively old-fashioned communication between people can solve more than a few misinformation and digital society-related problem.

Data problems of the future

It may seem to us that we are given free benefits in return, such as messaging platforms, cloud computing solutions, creative and entertainment environments etc.

However, "free" is not the correct word in this context. Saying that "media is the new oil" has become a cliche among media scholars. And it is true. Our digital activity leaves behind huge amounts of data that in turn manufactures new data that is coveted by platforms and various smaller and larger counterparts behind them.

I'm sure everyone has been asked to agree to their data being used when downloading an application or visiting a website. There are a lot of applications and websites that cannot be used any other way. You have a choice – whether to surrender your data or leave. And you end up giving the platform access to your photos and videos.

Children and grandparents on family photos become data in platforms' data depositories used to train AI to identify people on the street and model surveillance technologies, including those that severely violate privacy and other human rights.

How often does a user really check what they are authorizing? Most people tell themselves that they have nothing to hide. However, this data and access to applications is how we are allowing service providers access to our lives – from our bedroom to a trip to the store and from a bog hike to our bathroom.

The problem is even more serious when it comes to children whose data footprint is being cultivated by their parents. By the time they reach puberty and begin to grasp their right to privacy and how their information gets used, platforms and service providers will have more data on them than they ever had on their grandparents.

It might seem utopian and far away, but we will be faced with young people protesting the data behavior of their parents that violates their privacy sooner or later. It will look rather similar to climate protests today.

Once we learn how to deal with false information and behave ourselves online, we will have come face to face with problems accompanying datafication, particularly children detailed pictures of the lives of whom will have been painted to the benefit of major corporations. How to immunize ourselves against that early on?


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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