Nurturing Trust | Sunday Observer

Nurturing Trust

23 October, 2022

Fake News. Post-Truth. Alternative Facts. If you have not been living under a rock for the past few years, you would have heard these terms in relation to the news that you read, watch and consume in mainstream and social media.

The truth is not what it seems to be these days, since anyone can upload “news” to social media sites, which are sometimes picked by the established media. But amidst the information deluge that we experience every day, it is somewhat difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In fact, during the height of the Covid pandemic, the torrent of misinformation became almost unmanageable that a separate word was coined to describe it – Infodemic. There was a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories on everything from the origin of Covid-19 to the side effects of the mRNA vaccines that were launched in record time. It was shared widely on social media that the vaccines contained a chip that could track the injected person’s movements and that those who get the jabs would be rendered infertile. None of this was true, but millions of people around the world believed these spurious claims as the gospel truth.

Huge challenge

This is a huge challenge faced by both news creators and news consumers. A lot of people unfortunately depend on their Facebook feed to get their daily “news fix”, having veered away from the conventional print and electronic media. They fall for every kind of fake news in this Internet rabbit hole. Conventional media employ professional fact checkers to check every aspect of their stories, an element sadly missing from the social media platforms.

However, under intense pressure from Governments, they have begun moderating and even censoring some of the content posted online by billions of users around the world. It is not only news that it is twisted – there is a lot of hate, xenophobia, sexism, antisemitism, misogyny, financial scams and blackmail online. Navigating this treacherous online landscape is indeed a challenge in the modern digital age.

It is in his context that the phrase “Media and Information Literacy” (MIL) has entered the lexicon. In today’s world, simple alphabetic literacy is not enough. We should have a greater awareness of the media landscape and also the news around us. This will help us filter the deluge of information and identify what is right and what is wrong or untrue. Tomorrow, the United Nations (UN) begins the Media and Information Literacy (MIL) week with this aim in mind and with “trust” as a key theme. It all comes down to whether we can trust news and information sources to deliver the truth and nothing but the truth.

In Our Common Agenda report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, twelve commitments were made by world leaders. Among these commitments, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted the values of trust and solidarity as being the glue for social cohesion and social breakthroughs for the common good.

However, the harsh reality is that the trust factor is being eroded. Considering Our Common Agenda, the UN has called on the global community to not only reaffirm and increase commitment to MIL for all, but to also develop new initiatives on MIL to nurture trust.

The Global MIL Week 2022 focuses on trust and solidarity as it relates to people, media, digital platforms, Governments, private sector, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). It highlights some promising actions in connection with media and information literacy in the last year and how media and information literacy helps with nurturing trust and countering mistrust.

Addressing inequalities

In 2021, the UN General Assembly decided to commemorate the Media and Information Literacy (MIL) week, citing the need for the dissemination of factual, timely, targeted, clear, accessible, multilingual and science-based information. The Resolution recognises that the substantial Digital Divide and data inequalities that exist among different countries and within them, can be addressed in part by improving people’s competencies to seek, receive and impart information in the digital realm.

This was most clearly seen during the Covid pandemic when only a certain percentage of the world’s schoolchildren could access online lessons and only a certain percentage of the global workforce could Work From Home (WFH). This Digital Divide caused by poverty and the lack of access to devices and/or 4G signals has to be addressed by world Governments.

In the current ecosystem of complex and sometimes contradictory messages and meanings, it is hard to conceive of the public good being advanced, if the public is disempowered in the face of opportunities and threats. Each individual needs to be equipped with MIL competencies to understand the stakes, and to contribute to and benefit from information and communication opportunities.

The Global Media and Information Literacy Week, commemorated annually, is a major occasion for stakeholders to review and celebrate the progress achieved towards “Media and Information Literacy for All.” This week’s theme is “Nurturing Trust”.

Our brains depend on information to work optimally. The quality of information we engage with largely determines our perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. It could be information from other persons, the media, libraries, archives, museums, publishers, or other information providers including those on the Internet.

People across the world are witnessing a dramatic increase in access to information and communication. While some people are starved for information, others are flooded with print, broadcast and digital content. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) provides answers to the questions that we all ask ourselves at some point.

How can we access, search, critically assess, use and contribute content wisely, both online and offline? What are our rights online and offline? What are the ethical issues surrounding the access and use of information? How can we engage with media and Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to promote equality, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, peace, freedom of expression and access to information? These are questions that both the media consumers and creators have to answer, not to mention Governments and regulatory authorities.

While the digital era and new technologies have brought societies many benefits, we also face challenges such as growing digital divides, cyber threats, and human rights violations online. A recent UN report on this vast subject lays out a roadmap in which all stakeholders play a role in advancing a safer, more equitable digital world.

New ICT technologies

The new ICT technologies have the potential to provide new solutions to development challenges, particularly in the context of globalisation, and can foster economic growth, competitiveness, access to information and knowledge, poverty eradication, and social inclusion that will help to expedite the integration of all countries, especially developing countries, in particular the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), into the global economy. In fact, with the technologies now available, they can leapfrog into the Information Age bypassing some of the rudimentary steps that had to be taken by the more developed countries.

It is a well-established fact that ICT technologies present new opportunities and challenges and that there is a pressing need to address the major impediments that developing countries face in accessing the new technologies, such as insufficient resources, infrastructure, education, capacity, investment and connectivity, and issues related to technology ownership, standards and flows. For example, while many developed countries already have functioning 5G networks offering superfast Internet, most developing countries are still stuck in the 3G age as they do not have the financial and technical resources to move up the communications ladder. This does not make for a level playing field in the global ICT stakes.

In this regard, the UN has called upon all stakeholders in developed countries to provide adequate resources, enhanced capacity-building and technology transfer, on mutually agreed terms, to all developing countries.

However, there are concerns regarding the Digital Divide in access to ICT tools and Broadband Connectivity between countries at different levels of development, which affects many economically and socially relevant applications in areas such as Government, business, health and education, and further expresses concern with regard to the special challenges faced in the area of broadband connectivity by developing countries, including the LDCs, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Landlocked Developing Countries. (LLDCs).

Sri Lanka is one of the few developing countries that have made vast gains in this sphere, in spite of financial constraints. Trials of 5G systems have already started in key cities, the fibre network has reached all parts of the island and practically everyone has a smartphone. Data is still comparatively cheap here even after the recent tax hikes, but the Digital Divide remains a major issue.

The State has intervened to purchase laptop computers for university students on a loan basis, but a somewhat similar move by the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe to provide tablet computers to second school and A/L students had to be scrapped due to opposition by certain quarters. But had that program gone ahead at that time, we would not have had to face a Digital Divide during the pandemic. This program should resume once our finances are in order. In this light, we feel that MIL also has to begin from schools themselves and all children should be educated on getting access to proper sources of news, education and information.

Talking of news, it is generally replete with negative news – killings, bombings, natural disasters etc. But there is still good news in our world and we do not hear about hem much. Development is not a topic covered by most media outlets, because it lacks appeal. What do you rather like to watch – the opening of a water supply project or a shooting incident in the heart of Galle? Hence, the media have a duty to give priority to development news and make them more appealing to the masses.

The UN General Assembly in 1972 established the World Development Information Day to draw the attention of the world to development problems and the need to strengthen international cooperation to solve them. The Assembly decided that the date for the Day should coincide with United Nations Day, October 24, which was also the date of the adoption, in 1970, of the International Development Strategy for the Second United Nations Development Decade. Although we do not give due credit, the UN does a lot of work around the world in the development sphere.

The Assembly deemed that improving the dissemination of information and the mobilisation of public opinion, particularly among young people, would lead to greater awareness of the problems of development, thus, promoting efforts in the sphere of international cooperation for development. There are many problems that affect development, including the lack of finances and manpower. In Sri Lanka, many development projects including expressways and airport projects have been stopped midway as a result of the present financial crisis. The media should highlight these development issues on a regular basis.

Achieving SDGs

All countries should work closely with the UN to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On this day, it would be appropriate to recall the birth of the UN. The Second World War that ended in 1945 was a wake-up call for all countries that war had no purpose. Millions of people were killed in that war and the world risked further wars. After seeing the horrors of the war, many nations wanted to come together to achieve peace and prevent war. Their efforts resulted in the United Nations, a gathering of almost 200 countries including Sri Lanka that was established on October 24, 1945. Hence October 24 is known as the United Nations day.

Sri Lanka has worked closely with the UN ever since its inception and many of its agencies are active here. For example, the childhood diseases and Covid vaccination programme in Sri Lanka, assisted by the WHO, has been a great success. Sri Lanka has eight sites on the World Heritage List compiled by UNESCO.

Our education system gets assistance from UNICEF. Sri Lanka works closely with ILO too. In fact, the UN has been a ray of hope for all developing countries, stepping in with development and welfare assistance. We hope that it will continue this mission in the decades to come.