Creating more sophisticated content consumers

Would more sophisticated content consumers help Canada avoid the need to implement online harms restrictions?

In early 2022, I described Finland’s approach, teaching school kids how to process information online, including checking and verifying “news” and “facts” being shared on social media. As the Daily Telegraph wrote at the time, “Teaching and learning about media literacy and critical thinking is a life-long journey. It starts at kindergartens and continues at elementary schools, high schools and universities”.

While the Canadian government has been under pressure to introduce its long-promised Online Harms bill, I continue to wonder if more effort should be focused on teaching critical thinking skills in Canada.

I am doubtful that the government should be in the business of determining what content should be blocked. This current government is not qualified to block information that it judges to be “misinformation”; as I pointed out in late October, the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Innovation all circulated incorrect information that inflamed antisemitism. How can this government judge others’ content, when their own information has been harmful.

I am not a fan of technology specific legislation. At the same time, it is reasonable to expect that content that is considered illegal in print media should continue to be considered illegal in digital form.

It is extremely challenging to try to block content that is determined to be harmful. Blocking the content in one location will simply create an incentive for the content to emerge somewhere else. It becomes a never ending game of whack-a-mole.

In a recent article on The Hub, Richard Stursberg calls for “the news industry to decouple from social media”, saying “Much of social media is a sewer, polluted with content that claims to be true but is, in fact, disinformation and fake news.” The article claims that credible news gets judged by the company it is keeping on social media, compromising Canadians’ confidence, resulting in less trust for traditional news.

Under the circumstances, the best course might be for the news industry to simply leave social media. It could then set up its own platform, access to which would only be granted to firms that subscribed to a tough code of journalistic ethics like those in place for the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and CTV.

I am not as confident as the author that “It would be a simple matter to set up such a platform.”

Instead, what if we try to develop a society filled with more sophisticated content consumers? Can we create a series of school curricula, from kindergarten through university, to improve digital and media literacy and develop critical thinking?

Such a project would be a long term investment.

The Oxford Internet Institute recently released a study of nearly 12,000 children in the United States, that found no evidence that screen time impacted their brain function or well-being. The abstract for the full study said there were two hypotheses being tested: that functional brain organization is related to digital screen engagement; and, that children with higher rates of engagement will have functional brain organization profiles related to maladaptive functioning. “Results did not support either of these predictions for [screen media activity].”

While some schools boards have been considering whether to remove screens from classrooms, I wonder if a better approach is to focus on programs that teach improved digital literacy skills, learning how to differentiate between good information and bad, and helping kids become more informed consumers of digital content.

Can such programs help innoculate Canadians against a wide variety of online harms, including online hate, fraud, misinformation and disinformation?

Creating more sophisticated content consumers will require a longer time horizon with more patience required to implement, but will it deliver a better outcome than trying to legislate government controls on freedoms of expression?

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