Devastating testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is creating rare bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill to regulate the social media behemoths that now shape nearly every aspect of American life, including both public health in the midst of a pandemic and the very health of our democracy. Such attention is overdue. And yet we need to be clear-eyed that it won’t be enough.
The challenge is not just the endless supply of disinformation, but also how it is consumed.
While there is certainly a need to induce the platform companies that run social media networks to take more responsibility for the ills that emanate from them, research shows that another key part of the problem needs more investment and energy: us.
When researchers at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assembled some 85 studies and reports, made by 51 organizations, on what to do about the global “infodemic,” improving the skills of the human targets of mis/disinformation was the most frequently cited. This finding was backed by a RAND Corporation report, which similarly assembled 24 studies on how to defend against state-sponsored propaganda. Here again, the experts emphasized the need to focus on human skills.
In a world where we rely on the internet for everything from voting to health information to figuring out weekend plans, think of these skills as the new requirements for modern day “cyber citizenship.” Developed by a team of experts from New America, CyberFlorida, and the National Association of Media Literacy Educators, this concept crosses the critical thinking skills of media literacy with the threat awareness of cybersecurity and the sense of personal responsibility of digital civics. The goal is not just to help people find credible information online but also to analyze and evaluate it for everything from its sourcing to whether someone is trying to play on our emotions. At a time of political polarization, these skills are about enabling and empowering individuals, while sidestepping contentious debates over censorship. They are not about telling people what to think, but about helping them avoid being manipulated and duped.
Citizens with these skills are better able to protect themselves. And, when enough citizens have these skills, communities can acquire a sort of “herd immunity,” as people learn to be more discerning and stop infecting others in their social networks with manipulative information.
This approach to building a more resilient population reflects the hard won lessons of democracies that have handled online threats better than ours. Nations like Estonia and Finland, for instance, didn’t break up Facebook or force Google to alter YouTube’s algorithms, but they are far more cyber-secure and their democracies healthier. Part of why is that they have embraced concepts of cyber citizenship and embedded them in education systems.
The tools to teach such skills range from entertaining and educational games to classroom curricula.
And the good news is that we have growing evidence that such interventions work. The bad news is that such efforts are spotty across the community of democracies, nor scaled to match the massive need. In the U.S., with its some 18,000 different school systems, the inconsistency plays out across state and local levels. Yet, the disarray goes further. Even in school systems that have launched such programs, the tools they use are too often not validated for their effectiveness. Some educators are reduced to googling for teaching tools that can help protect their students.
A better way is possible — and it could come at minimal cost and a high return on investment.
The first step is to expand the agenda. While it may be tempting for politicians to focus on beating up Facebook, those who want actual effective action should recognize that education and national security are now wrapped together in new ways — and require new responses.
Yes, the tech platforms have to do more, but so do we.
We need a national effort to prepare citizens — young and otherwise — for “life online” in today’s socially engineered world. A catalyzing moment for the Biden administration should be the upcoming Summit for Democracy where it can rally support to fight the shared threat of disinformation. An American effort on cyber citizenship could also be a shining example of how we can lead in defending democracy, with citizens themselves at the forefront.
The second needed effort is coalition building. There is a wildly diverse set of actors and organizations wrestling with the problems of social media across tech, security, and education. But they are also wildly disconnected. We need a collaborative community of experts and organizations in fields ranging from national and cyber security to pedagogy and education policy, along with front line educators. A focus of this work should be to identify and disseminate the best “cyber citizenship” educational tools and strategies, providing our educators with access to the best lesson plans, classroom exercises, and other learning materials.
The third requirement is to catalyze investment. Support for cyber citizenship programming (again, the most frequently recommended action item by experts) is miniscule. Instead of funding yet another task force, commission, or talkshop, let’s support research on what works best and how to deploy it — the creation of new cyber citizenship tools, and scaling their deployment into our schools and across our democracies. This is also a space for incentivizing matching funds by other democracies and philanthropies.
Arming the human targets of disinformation through improved education systems may not make for headlines or clickbait, but it is what will empower individual citizens to better protect themselves, and our democracy along with them.
P.W. Singer is strategist and senior fellow at New America and the co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, a global education and development organization.