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@UKHouseofLords and @HLDemoDigital - Democracy under threat from ‘pandemic of misinformation’ online – Government ‘abandoning its role’ in improving digital literacy

The UK Government should act immediately to deal with a ‘pandemic of misinformation’ that poses an existential threat to our democracy and way of life. The stark warning comes in a report published today by the Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies.

The report highlights the threat to democracy caused by a crisis of trust as the public feel unable to rely on the accuracy of information they receive online.  The Committee stresses the need for a new focus on ‘digital media literacy’ in schools and adult education to ensure children and adults are better equipped to identify misinformation online and are empowered to be ‘digitally aware consumers of information’.

The report recommends digital education move beyond a narrow focus on functional digital skills to support critical thinking in how people engage with technology and the online word.

It calls on the Department for Education to review the school curriculum to ensure critical digital media literacy becomes ‘embedded across the curriculum’.

The Committee says there is a concerning “absence of governmental leadership” on designing digital literacy programmes and accuses the Government of “abandoning its role” on the issue. The report compares the UK Government’s record unfavourably with countries with a better developed awareness of external digital threats from hostile states and where media literacy forms an essential part of the curriculum. 

The Committee also states that technology companies must do more to make their platforms intelligible, saying that “you can only read something that is legible.” The report recommends new regulation requiring greater transparency in how platforms work to support changes in the curriculum, including explaining how individual pieces of content have been targeted at a user. 

As well as focusing on the importance of education to democracy the report makes recommendations on better regulation of the tech giants, new rules on political advertising and election law, and the introduction of a new digital ombudsman. 

Commenting, Lord Puttnam,  Chair of the Committee, said: 

“We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing. People no longer have faith that they can rely on information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy. 

“Part of the reason for this decline in trust is a lack of confidence among the public about how to navigate online and find sources they can rely on. The Department for Education focuses too much on digital skills in the context of computing lessons when schools should also be embedding critical digital literacy right across the curriculum. 

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“In recent months we have seen clear examples of the dangers of misinformation online with the rise of conspiracy theories and spurious medical advice around Covid-19. This is the way misinformation can damage an individual’s health, at the same time we have seen other instances where it is our collective democratic health that’s under threat.  This must stop – it is time for the Government to get a grip of this issue and that must start by ensuring our digital education is fit for purpose in equipping citizens to be digitally and media literate.”

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