Severing the digital puppet threads

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

How do we prepare the next generation to deal with disinformation on the Internet? To resist disinformation campaigns and conspiracy myths, critical thinking is now more than ever indispensable – but so far, it has been a blind spot in our school system.

Being a digital native means being born into a world where misinformation and disinformation is spreading faster and further than ever. But dealing with this misleading information is not something anyone is born with. The importance of media education, whose self-proclaimed goal is to help people "find their way as self-determined individuals in a constantly changing society – and this in both media and non-media worlds", is central to society in the "post-factual" age.

The examples of modern disinformation campaigns are legion. While the most striking examples occurred during the Cambridge Analytica scandal around the Brexit, or during the 2016 US elections, in which voters were, among others, made to believe that they could cast their vote by text message. The American trend of swallowing or injecting horse dewormers as a Corona remedy after an online "consultation" for 90 euros – despite sometimes disastrous side effects – also reveals the sheer absurd efficiency of such campaigns. The movement behind the horse drug illustrates the different axes that disinformation campaigns exploit: The ad campaign, in which charlatans make a quick buck, was picked up and retweeted by "traditional" media outlets like Fox News. People who fell for the scam are not in short supply of "sources" to share further. The result is a self-sustaining movement. More than one newspaper had to advise their readers to "please not take horse dewormer".

Puppeteers

Less obvious, but no less divisive for society, are myths like the one currently running rampant in Germany, saying that you need a vaccination card to go shopping (complete with fake quote). The sharepic has been shared thousands of times despite the lack of a source: Fuel for the ongoing fire.

Once disinformation starts spreading, it can hardly be contained and people who fall into the disinformation spiral can hardly be convinced of the opposite. Prevention and the formation of a critical mind are not only the most promising means to counteract it, but often also the only ones.

So how are pupils in Luxembourg prepared for this Herculean task? Not well, according to the study "International Computer and Information Literacy" published in 2018 by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement). Luxembourg was second to last in Europe in the category "Computer and Information Literacy", which also looks at the handling of questionable information: 51 percent of Luxembourg's pupils did not reach the minimum level necessary "to successfully use digital tools and habits to make informed decisions in the digital age", a "key skill in the 'era of fake news'". In the "hard" computer skills such as programming, problem-solving thinking or the use of databases, we came in dead last.

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