Digital Media and Information Literacy: Working Towards Safer Online Spaces

One in three women in India have ever used the internet (33%), as opposed to over half the men (57%).

Let’s pause to think about that.

In this age, digital media and information literacy is a basic right that must be afforded to all people irrespective of gender, caste, religion, culture or economic background. It does not just involve access to digital infrastructure, devices and media tools but also provision of education and trainings to build skills on how better to use these tools and how to protect oneself from online harm.

The digital world is increasingly becoming important as a space for expression and community building. Online content creation, graphic design, photography and social media management are skills highly valued by employers. Potential employees present social media presence as a way of showcasing work they have done as well as to demonstrate their content management skills. Unfortunately, skills are not being upgraded at the same rate at which the proliferation of digital devices is taking place. This has led to many young people finding themselves ill equipped for the misinformation and misrepresentation that we are currently facing. These skills are critical if young people are to effectively navigate the web and make it relevant to everyday living.

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I recently attended an event convened by Ideosync Media Combine – a communication for social change organisation working in India and South Asia – where the organisation presented Free/Dem, their flagship programme which works towards digitally empowering women and young girls in and around Delhi’s peri-urban areas through hyper local Digital Media Information Literacy Pathshalas.

The event was held at India Habitat Centre on June 15 and attended by members of various civil society organisations such as Internet Freedom Foundation, Shakti Shalini, Action India, Plan India, Khoj International and UN Women. The meeting was an opportunity to discuss tangible actions towards recognising the importance for and advocating for digital literacy for young adults – especially those who are otherwise discriminated against and often ignored when we discuss digital development.

Women have to fight a tougher fight to access their rights to the digital. Some of the girls who were part of the programme talked about their experiences, discussing how social media has become a matter of social status. The girls reported being trolled and facing inappropriate comments on their posts. Through the Free/Dem Media Pathsahala sessions, they learnt to use various settings on their devices to block and report unwanted comments. They also learnt the importance of fact-checking their information, how to make podcasts and short films and how to act as advocates for better digital education in their locality. As Free/Dem trainee Swati put it, “The programme didn’t just empower me – it helped me teach and empower the women around me.”

Men seem to get preference over women when it comes to access to and ownership of digital devices. As a result, many women from economic and socially marginalised identities live without digital autonomy. Many of the women in the programme reported sharing digital devices with members of the family. Even those who obtain digital skills are not immune to criticism and censorship from their families and community. Many of the trainees described receiving blowback from their families about ‘inappropriate’ clothes in the photographs they posted online. Those who have wanted to question the norms in their society through social media and other multi-media products, have had an uphill battle.

Students are often the most vulnerable. A comprehensive D-MIL programme is not currently a part of the school curriculum in India. However, the pandemic ensured that students are online. This makes students rely on their peers and self-learning tactics to develop their digital persona.

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As education becomes steadily more accessible in our country (the literacy rate rose by 5.07% between 2011 and 2018 alone), school curriculum is the most feasible ways to promote media literacy and foster digital skills. Not only will such programs allow students to develop critical digital skills that will stand them in good stead, it also provides them with a platform where they can voice opinions, concerns and solutions of their own through various multi-media products.

It is also worth noting that the digital space, no matter how carefully introduced, does make people vulnerable to discrimination and harm. There were 14,02,809 reported cases of cyber-crimes in India in 2021, and 2,12,485 reported cases in just the first two months of 2022. Being exposed to cyber bullying and hate speech results in many young adults self-censoring themselves online.

In the meeting teachers and parents raised issues like the impact of increased time students spend online. It is vital to ask right now whether providing the resources for students to learn digital skills will not provide an excuse for them to spend unhealthy amounts of time on their devices.

Many of the students who participated in the D-MIL programme at the Delhi government’s schools of excellence said that before the programme they used their phones and laptops to chat with friends, or surf content on services such as YouTube and TikTok, as well as other social media sites. They reported that after the programme, they understood that they could do much more – take photographs, record audio, edit programs and short films, use it for research, design their own content, and most importantly, fact-check information they would otherwise believe blindly.

As one of the students said, “After the D-MIL program, I began to think of my phone as being powerful.”

Digital media and information literacy training can make a big difference in the lives of so many people, especially those from underprivileged or marginalised backgrounds. It can help them find a platform to voice their opinions, share their stories and discuss issues that affect us all. It can help them gain exposure, and provide them with opportunities they would not have otherwise. It can be the bridge that closes the gap in communication technology and helps everyone steps forward into this brave, new, digital world. However, without comprehensive digital media information literacy, many will be ill prepared.

Nethra Ramakrishnan is a Class 10 student.

Featured image: Rodion Kutsaev / Unsplash