The solution for polarization through disinformation: resilience and flexibility. By Emma van Toorn.
Do you recognize this? That the recommendentation page on your Instagram shows you a seemingly endless feed? Where one person might receive relatively harmless pictures and videos of cats, the other might see more and more articles containing dangerous conspiracy theories. This is, of course, no random selection. By now we know that algorithms keep track of our personal scroll- and click-habits in order to show us personalized content. When you use your social media as a news source for current events, chances are that you form a one-sided opinion on certain topics and issues, as both reliable and unreliable content is shared there at the speed of light. In the currently ever-changing media landscape it is especially the youth that are exposed more and more to polarizing content and disinformation.
At Diversion we work together closely with the educational system to make an impact on society. In the groups where we offer our programs, we notice an increase in youngsters who indicate a growing distrust of the traditional media. They feel like they are either badly or underrepresented by the mainstream media and find the news that is published by professional journalists does not fit their view of the world. We also see an increase in their belief that the traditional media consciously spreads disinformation to mislead the public. A student recently stated: “Nowadays journalists only spread fake news. That is why free speech should be forbidden.”
“Nowadays journalists only spread fake news. That is why free speech should be forbidden.”
Frustrated by regular media, some youngsters either become passive users or quit getting informed overall. Others follow more and more news sources of questionable backgrounds because they fit in better with the youth, due to their use of language and their coverage. Others lose their faith in the media and even behave violently towards journalists. At Diversion, we believe that the lack of resilience towards disinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news stimulates the polarization amongst young people. The reckless consumption, creation and spreading of questionable news messages has big consequences for our free society. The contradictions and estrangement that follow and move towards the digital world, lead to a decrease in democratic values. As these young people grow up in this online reality, we have to make this group resilient and flexible in the fast changing mediascape.
This calls for action. Diversion struck up a collaboration with DROG and together we developed the innovative education program called Under Pressure. What does it look like? Peer educators young experts, strike up a conversation with students about their behaviour regarding the media, the dangers of (spreading) disinformation and the importance of democratic values such as freedom of the press. In doing so, they use their own experiences: hanging out with family members that believe in conspiracy theories, frustration with traditional media and sometimes even (online) radicalization. The peer educators can level with the students, perhaps easier than a teacher could do, and can convince them of the importance of a critical, yet constructive attitude towards and approach of news content. In one of those classes a boy, who had been very quiet up until then, mentioned that he saw more and more videos with increasingly extreme content on YouTube. In the conversation with the peer educator, he wondered whether this was because of the algorithms and whether his opinions were influenced without him noticing.
In Under Pressure the students play an exciting game where they themselves are the bad guy. The game fits seamlessly in with their world view as they gather as many followers as possible by creating both believable and sensational content. The students are encouraged to disguise themselves, to manipulate readers by buying fake followers, and to create a new online conspiracy theory: ‘the environment is a fabrication of the Illuminati!’.While the players spread fake news through the world, on the side a score is kept of the player’s number of followers and their trustworthiness. The player with the largest amount of followers and the largest score of trust is the winner of the game. Research by the University of Cambridge has shown that the game works. The game is based on inoculation theory: playing the game provides the youngsters with a psychological ‘vaccine’ against desinformation by putting them in the position of someone who produces and spreads fake news online. That way, they learn to recognize fake news and can decide to abstain from liking it.
These online issues do not stop at the borders. That is why we work together with European partners to further develop Under Pressure. Uppsala University in Sweden researched the effects of Under Pressure in 35 classes at several high schools and vocational schools in the Netherlands. Students indicated that they were better at recognizing disinformation after participating in the program. Furthermore, the realization grew that credible news reports and freedom of press are important factors in combating polarization. Last but not least, most participants greatly enjoyed the classes with the peer educators!
At this moment in time,we are researching how Under Pressure can assist in developing media literacy amongst young people all throughout Europe by testing the program in several countries in collaboration with Swedish, German, and Belgian partner organizations. Thanks to a contribution from Netwerk Mediawijsheid, we were able to digitalize the program during the COVID-19 crisis so we can reach the classes online. That is how we work to create a generation of digitally resilient youngsters who endorse the democratic values of our society, especially now when the pandemic is putting pressure on democratic values in global societies. Online and offline.