Fixing Facebook is not enough
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s devastating testimony creates rare bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill to regulate the social media behemoths who now shape nearly every aspect of American life, including both public health amid a pandemic and the very health of our democracy. Such attention is long overdue. And yet we must be clear that this will not be enough.
The challenge is not only the endless supply of disinformation, but also how it is consumed.
While there is certainly a need to encourage platform companies that run social media networks to take more responsibility for the evils that emanate from it, research shows that another key part of the problem requires more investment and money. energy: us.
When Carnegie Endowment for International Peace researchers gathered some 85 studies and reports, by 51 organizations, on what to do about the global ‘infodemic’, improving the skills of human targets of disinformation was most often cited. This finding was supported by a report from the RAND Corporation, which also collected 24 studies on how to defend against state-sponsored propaganda. Here again, experts stressed the need to focus on human skills.
In a world where we rely on the Internet for everything from voting to health information to making weekend plans, think of these skills as the new demands of today’s “cyber citizenship”. Developed by a team of experts from New America, CyberFlorida, and the National Association of Media Literacy Educators, this concept intersects the critical thinking skills of media education with awareness of cybersecurity threats and a sense of personal responsibility for digital civic education. The goal is not only to help people find credible information online, but also to analyze and evaluate it for everything from its source to if someone is trying to play on our emotions. In an age of political polarization, these skills aim to empower and empower individuals, while avoiding controversial debates about censorship. It is not about telling people what to think, but about helping them to avoid being manipulated and duped.
Citizens with these skills are better able to protect themselves. And, when enough citizens have these skills, communities can acquire a sort of ‘herd immunity’, as people learn to be more perceptive and to stop infecting others in their social networks with manipulative information.
This approach to building a more resilient population reflects hard-learned lessons from democracies that have handled online threats better than ours. Countries like Estonia and Finland, for example, haven’t dismantled Facebook or forced Google to change YouTube algorithms, but they are much more secure and their democracies healthier. This is partly due to the fact that they have adopted the concepts of e-citizenship and integrated them into education systems.
The tools for teaching these skills range from entertaining and educational games to school programs.
And the good news is that we have a growing body of evidence that such interventions work. The bad news is that these efforts are uneven across the community of democracies, nor on the scale to meet massive needs. In the United States, with its roughly 18,000 different school systems, there is inconsistency between states and local levels. However, the disarray goes further. Even in school systems that have launched such programs, the tools they use are too often not validated for their effectiveness. Some educators are left with Google searching for educational tools that can help protect their students.
A better way is possible – and it could be done at minimal cost and with a high return on your investment.
The first step is to broaden the agenda. While it may be tempting for politicians to focus on Facebook, those who want real and effective action should recognize that education and national security are now associated in new ways – and require new answers.
Yes, technology platforms need to do more, but so do we.
We need a national effort to prepare citizens – young people and others – for “online life” in today’s socially designed world. A catalytic moment for the Biden administration is expected to be the upcoming Democracy Summit, where it can rally support to tackle the shared threat of disinformation. An American effort on cyber-citizenship could also be a shining example of how we can lead the way in the defense of democracy, with citizens themselves at the forefront.
The second necessary effort is the constitution of a coalition. There is an extremely diverse set of actors and organizations grappling with social media issues in the areas of technology, security, and education. But they are also very out of touch. We need a collaborative community of experts and organizations in fields ranging from national security and cybersecurity to pedagogy and education policies, as well as frontline educators. One goal of this work should be to identify and disseminate the best “cyber citizenship” educational tools and strategies, providing our educators with access to the best lesson plans, classroom exercises and other learning materials.
The third requirement is to catalyze investments. Support for e-citizenship programs (again, the action item most often recommended by experts) is minimal. Instead of funding another working group, commission or discussion workshop, let’s support research on what works best and how to deploy it: creating new cyber-citizenship tools and expanding their deployment in our schools and in our democracies. It is also a space to incentivize matching funds from other democracies and philanthropies.
Arming human targets with disinformation through improved education systems may not make headlines or click bait, but it is what will allow citizens to better protect themselves, and our democracy with them. .
PW Singer is a strategist and principal researcher at New America and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media”. Kristin Lord is President and CEO of IREX, a global education and development organization.