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Canadians have an urgent need to improve digital literacy

['Steve Bartlett']
['Steve Bartlett']

'At a dance that Friday night, I became the first in my junior high to be beaten up for wearing pin-striped jeans'

“I was the first in my junior high school to wear pin-striped jeans.
“At a dance that Friday night, I became the first in my junior high to be beaten up for wearing pin-striped jeans.”
The above sentences were my opening remarks during a panel discussion at a Democracy Bootcamp last week.
It was organized by CIVIX, an organization focused on helping young Canadians become informed citizens.
I was part of a conversation about “Digital Threats to Democracy.”
The others on the panel moderated by Jessica Leeder of The Globe and Mail were experts in this field.
Jane Lytvynenko covers misinformation for Buzzfeed News.
And Stephanie MacLellan, a former journalist, is a senior research associate with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
I’m no expert in misinformation, but I’m dealing with more and more of it all the time.
You are too.
And its power and potential scares the heck of out of me.
Like my junior high bully did back then.
I started with that anecdote because I wondered what it would have been like if my aggressor had access to today’s technology and an easy ability to create a professional-looking web presence to intimidate and ridicule.
It’s a scary thought, as is the fact troll farms are using the same technology to spread false information and have negative influence.
The main motivation is money, according to Buzzfeed’s Lytvynenko, which the trolls generate from advertising.
Disruption is a motivator for some.
With a federal election coming, there’s money to be made and chaos to cause.
So, it’s widely expected these dark forces will try to influence our vote.
While researching this column, I stumbled across an indication of how susceptible we are. A recent Canadian Journalism Foundation survey indicates 40 per cent of more than 2,300 respondents have struggled to tell the difference between factual and fictitious news stories.
Fifty-three per cent have read an agenda-driven report that looked like fact-based, balanced journalism.
MacLellan outlined a number of measures being taken to limit the damage disinformation could cause in the run-up to the federal vote, including an Elections Canada ad database.
The panelists made suggestions on what educators could do to stop misinformation and raise digital literacy.
Among the ideas were encouraging students to be vigilant, to find credible news sources, and teaching them how to recognize disinformation.
This is a big job and not an easy one, with the explosion of electronic devices and endless online advertising options.
That’s why fighting disinformation can’t be left solely to teachers. As well, we to need improve digital literacy in the entire population, not just young people.
The media has a big role to play here. We are not the “enemy of the people” and must play a major role by establishing and promoting platforms where facts are vigorously verified — so communities can trust us and know where to find the truth.
Also, on top of that, journalists can call out disinformation through fact-checking and showing readers when an article or video is incorrect.
But while teachers and media have big roles to play in digital literacy, so do you.
With outside forces eager to misinform and disrupt for profit and politics, everyone must be eager to recognize their efforts and to verify the facts of what they’re consuming.
And we need to share our experience and findings with each other — our kids, our parents, our friends, our co-workers, etc. — to raise our collective understanding about what’s going on or what to avoid.
Because we simply can’t let the misinformers win.
We have far too much to lose.

Steve Bartlett is SaltWire Network’s senior managing editor. Reach him at steve.bartlett@thetelegram.com.

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