For digital literacy, come back to reading
We may have ushered in a shiny new year, but some dusty old habits remain.
Just this past week, a number of Filipino internet users have fallen victim to fraudulent holiday links that spread on social media.
Along with these, the everyday stream of fake news stories, unfounded health tips and clickbait articles continue to fill our news feeds.
We’ve had the internet for decades; why are we still so digitally illiterate?
Here’s a concept: To be savvy internet users, we must first relearn and recultivate the good old practice of reading.
Digital literacy means, among others, distinguishing between information and disinformation, and how they are used; recognizing safety and security risks online; and being responsible and sensitive when interacting with others on the internet. While these pertain to our online activities, these are skills we pick up from reading traditional “offline” materials like books and newspapers.
When we talk of reading, it doesn’t just mean routinely looking at words and sentences, or scanning the page for tidbits we like. To read is to take the time to understand the material, to recognize our own opinions about it, and to seek more content that might affirm or challenge it.
To consume the text slowly and deliberately. This “deep reading” is usually achieved when, for instance, we sit down with a novel or an interesting article on the paper—no flashing ads or blue-lined hyperlinks to distract us.
This is not to say that people who read books are completely immune to online pitfalls. But in general, keen readers have a better sense of navigation in a world of manipulated news, polarized crowds and ever-shifting cybercultures.
For one, readers develop a wider worldview, such that their understanding is not limited within the culture they grew up in or the beliefs handed down to them. As a result, they are able to interact with—or observe—the many kinds of people online, with more perception, empathy and, if needed, caution.
Traditional readers also develop a taste for the credible and the verifiable. They might ask questions like, “Who is the author?” “When was this written?” “Whose side of the story is this?” These are actually the kind of questions we were supposed to have mastered in school, through those reading comprehension quizzes that came after the short stories in our textbooks. And these are the kind of questions that we should be asking now, as we try to make our way through widespread disinformation and manipulation.
Even further, the more a person reads, the more he or she develops a sense for biases, histories and associations that all shape a given author’s piece.
This is helpful in assessing any content we find online, especially with the proliferation of opinion-makers and influencers. We don’t just immediately accept whatever a popular person writes or anything a friend shares.
We must discern the influences behind the content and what it tries to get us to do.
The critical thinking skills we develop as we read are more important today than ever. Yet they are the very skills that are apparently being discounted in Philippine education. The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment results, showing Filipino students as having the lowest reading comprehension among 79 countries, is damning evidence.
In hopes of keeping up with information technology, we’ve welcomed with gusto all the various tech upgrades our schools and public facilities have received: up-to-date computers, better internet access, tech-focused trainings and the like. These are valuable, of course, but they do not magically transform a population into sensible internet users. The “sensible” part must first be developed.
For this, we need educators and parents who themselves are advocates for deliberate reading, as well as schools and public environments that encourage this practice.
It’s not the smartphone in our hand that makes us wise to fake news; neither is it the Wi-Fi connection that makes us responsible social media users.
It’s the sensibility we acquire through pages and pages of earnest reading. If we are to ready ourselves to become “netizens,” perhaps we should pick up a book or two first.