Social media and the case for Media and Information literacy
The invention of the World Wide Web is arguably the greatest social revolution in modern times. Through the World Wide Web we get connected with each other in real time. Access is however not equitable at this point. In 2017, the World Bank reported that 9% of Sierra Leoneans use the internet. By 2019, the Internet World Statistics reported an increase of just 4.1% in internet penetration. It therefore remains a fact that access to internet in Sierra Leone is elitist and privileged. It is however assuring to know that government continues to put in place the infrastructure needed to expand access to mobile internet in the country. And with that comes expanded access to social media and networking opportunities such as Facebook and WhatsApp. This is defining the age of New Media in Sierra Leone. A new terrain and a new ballgame!
To the professional, new media is the means of mass communication that relies on digital technologies such as the Internet, Facebook, WhatsApp and other popular applications as the means through which virtual communities find expression individually and collectively. Social media offers many opportunities for expanding commerce and promoting trade. The communities and social interactions we engage in online are invaluable for bolstering and developing self-confidence and social skills. Furthermore, social media is enabling reflective continuous education and professional development. A golden age of learning at one's own pace and with pleasure! I have honed my debating and discussion skills in WhatsApp groups with a mix of local, national or international contacts. This has helped me to function better (I believe) within my community and social space: physical and virtual.
Having said in the above all the nice things about social media, let me turn my attention to the issue of my concern today. In the days of old, I mean when radio, television and newspapers reigned supreme, the news generation highway was a one-way stream. The population was fed with information from known (and registered, in some cases) news sources. The population were passive consumers of news. With New Media, that is no longer the case. New media has introduced a major paradigm shift. Today, literally put, everybody with access to internet can generate news and in one click send the news right round the world using social media. No one source holds monopoly over news-generation. We are newsmakers and news-consumers in our own right! This is a profoundly powerful force for good and for bad, and it is important that citizens are aware of this.
Social media is not always a reliable source of news. Anybody can post anything and literally get away with it. And once the news is out there, it is out!! In more networks that can be monitored, there is no publisher to check whether the information put out there is true or false. Thus, social media is so incredibly awash with fake news. It is sometimes amazing the extent people can go to construct totally false information and post them online. Graphic design technologies can be used to distort images to contrive non-existent scenarios. These can be posted alongside contrived stories to seemingly lend credence to the news.
As we navigate the so-called "post-truth" age on the internet, it is obvious that tackling online misinformation requires much more than just detection. In several respects, chasing fake news online can amount to chasing the wind. What more can we do about it?
Media and Information Literacy (MIL) is a process that will enable individuals to process and evaluate online information with some savviness and discernment. Media and Information Literacy aims to enable individuals to think critically about the media and the information they consume by engaging in a process of inquiry. This is to allow individuals to become engaged citizens and responsible decision-makers. Media and Information Literacy provides the skills for evaluating news sources, and context, and placing the appropriate value on the news material.
I subscribe to MIL as an additional tool in our efforts to combat the proliferation of fake news online and protect vulnerable citizens. We need to educate ourselves better on how to use social media and protect our children from inappropriate materials (I will return to this aspect sometime soon). To the extent that social media is permeating all facets of our lives, it is important for us to incorporate MIL into formal and informal training at all levels.
With continued expansion in access to internet across the country, we can anticipate exposure to the full range of fake news and other inappropriate materials that appear to dominate in countries where internet access is taken for granted. Media and Information literacy offers a way towards creating a society that is empowered and less likely to fall for the attractive lures of fake news.
Lonta ka da Bai! For Love of Mama Salone.
Yeama Sarah Thompson