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Editorial

The Finland model

/ 05:03 AM May 22, 2022

At the start of 2022, Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a nonprofit organization established in 2018, noted that attacks on democracy accelerated around the world in 2021, and warned that this would continue this year. “The explosion of online disinformation has made it easy for those who seek to erode democratic norms,” GDI said.

Disinformation has inundated the Philippines’ online space especially in the recently concluded national and local elections. A month before the elections, Meta Platforms Inc. said it removed a network of 400 Facebook accounts for inauthentic behavior, hacking, and fake engagement. In January, Twitter suspended more than 300 accounts for violating its spam policy and promoting certain candidates.

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The country’s slow internet speed aside, social media has revolutionized the way information is distributed and spread, which used to be monopolized by television, radio, and print media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok have allowed anybody with a gadget and internet access to play the role of content creator and distributor without going through the rigorous process of fact-checking. But the absence of a global standard on how to regulate social media sites without sacrificing freedom of speech and the privacy of users has added threats to the democratic project, and will have long-term effects on the way the public consumes information online. To counter fake news, Facebook, for one, engaged third-party organizations to help in its fact-checking program.

There is one European country, however, that has managed to fight disinformation and misinformation: Finland. The country, which was rated as Europe’s “most resistant nation to fake news” in 2020, launched its anti-fake news initiative eight years ago. Its strategy? It took the fight against fake news to primary schools where they teach young students media literacy and critical thinking. Said Jussi Toivanen, chief communications specialist for the prime minister’s office: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.”

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With a new administration soon taking over the reins of government — inheriting problems that ail the country’s education system such as Filipino students’ low rankings in mathematics, science, and reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment, among many others — it would be of help for the incoming education secretary to pay attention to what Finland has done in raising a generation able to think critically, fact-check independently, and assess whether the information consumed across media platforms is accurate.

Finnish students are taught about the methods used to deceive social media users: image and video manipulations, half-truths, intimidation, false profiles, use of bots, and “deepfake” or highly realistic manipulated video or audio. Finland did not merely focus on debunking false claims; it also trained state officials to spot, and then hit back at fake news.

The Finnish government also embedded media and digital literacy in its national curriculum. “In math lessons … pupils learn how easy it is to lie with statistics. In art, they see how an image’s meaning can be manipulated. In history, they analyze notable propaganda campaigns, while Finnish language teachers work with them on the many ways in which words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive,” said journalist Jon Henley in an online article published by the Nordic Policy Center.

The goal, said Kari Kivinen, director of Helsinki French-Finnish School and former secretary general of the European Schools, is to have “active, responsible citizens and voters” who will think twice and check sources before they share something on social media.

This is now the huge challenge that presumptive Vice President Sara Duterte, incoming education secretary, faces. But this is not far from her dream of raising “a future generation of patriotic Filipinos (who) advocate peace and discipline in their respective communities.” In a statement last week accepting the education portfolio, she did say that she intends to focus on “producing skilled learners with the mindset to realize their full potential as individuals.”

One way to do this as education secretary is for Duterte to institutionalize a curriculum that teaches young students critical thinking and media literacy in the digital world, which has become an important platform where policies and programs can be shaped. For it is only through a responsible, informed, and engaged citizenry, and not through anonymous trolls that spread disinformation and misinformation online, that the country can truly achieve its dream of becoming part of the developed world.

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