“Digital literacy will probably be the only kind of literacy there is”

Interview with Matthew D’Ancona, political columnist for the Guardian and the New York Times
by Marilyn Achiron, Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

“Learning how to navigate the web with discernment is the most pressing cultural mission of our age.” So asserts Matthew D’Ancona, political columnist for the Guardian and the New York Times, in his timely and passionately argued new book, Post-Truth: The War on Truth and How to Fight Back. D’Ancona writes that he sees his book as an exploration of “the declining value of truth as society’s reserve currency” and asks: “So what happens when lies not only proliferate but also seem to matter less – or even not at all?” We met with D’Ancona in June, when he spoke at the OECD Forum in Paris.

Marilyn Achiron: How can schools help educate young people to be able to tell fact from fiction when they’re using the Internet?

Matthew D’Ancona: It’s a bit like be given a car without being taught to drive, isn’t it? Kids have access to digital devices from a very early age. You can be sure that, in a classroom of 7- or 8-year-olds, a good few of them will already have access to the Internet; perhaps more, and perhaps younger. I think digital literacy should be taught as a separate subject, and I would teach it from the age of 5. At the moment, it’s basically left to parents to decide how they police their children on line. But we’re living in a transitional era, where a lot of parents don’t know what is on line. Many of them may have become comfortable with e-mail and perhaps even have a Facebook page, but perhaps they don’t understand how deep and wide the Internet is. So there is a definite role for formal education in this. And to me, it’s a no-brainer. One of the basic tasks of education in any system is to teach children how to read a text. First, how to read it, and then, as they grow older, how to understand it.

At the moment, schools treat the Internet as if it was just another tool, as a means of writing essays on their laptops or going to Google. But there’s very little attempt to encourage kids to say: “When I go to this website or access social media, how can I be sure that it’s reliable?” I think it should be instilled in kids from a very early age that the Internet is an unbelievably powerful tool and it can be powerful in the best possible ways; but it can also be a kind of engine of falsehood. I don’t think you can expect children to know that instinctively any more than you can expect them to understand Shakespeare or Proust instinctively. It’s something that is taught; it’s a skill. The difficulty is, at the moment, there isn’t a very large cohort of teachers who have those skills. So one of things governments will have to do is legislate and devote resources to training teachers how to do this…We are preparing our children for a future where digital literacy will probably be the only kind of literacy there is.

MA: We seem to be living in a culture of lying. People lie on social media, they lie on their CVs…

MD’A: It’s become easier to lie. Anonymity and physical distance have enabled people to lie. It’s extremely easy on social media to create an entirely illusory self. And people find a kind of therapeutic value in that. Of course it’s enormously dangerous. At its extreme version, it can be used for the most appalling manipulations of children, for instance.

MA: Is it because parents and teachers are not teaching the value of the truth anymore?

MD’A: I don’t think teachers have failed; I just think the task has become infinitely more difficult. It goes back to the whole question of digital literacy. It is terrifying to me that Holocaust denial has become so prevalent again. When you look back at the past 30 years, there was the famous trial of David Irving that was meant to be the great drawing-of-a-line under that: Holocaust denial had been taken to court and destroyed. But it’s still around – and, arguably, reaching more peole than ever because [David Irving] is now an online icon for these people. That’s another reality: with the Internet, nothing is settled; you have to be permanently vigilent.

I think that what will happen, as in years past, is that we’ll see almost a consumerist approach to information, which I think is very sensible. We’ll opt more and more for Kitemarks* and validations: “this website is realiable; you can trust this”. In the UK, you have Which?, the consumer association; for restaurants, you have the Michelin guide. It’s not difficult to establish trusted forms of vetting. I think that bigger and more adventurous examples of that, crowdfunded or even possibly even publicly funded, will be essential, so that there is a Kitemark on the top of websites saying “this website has been judged”…. But this requires people to take the time; and the problem is where 10 or 20 years ago you’d be talking about hundreds of media brands, you’re now talking about millions of webpages. That’s the difficulty. But you have to start somewhere, and I think the good can drive out the bad.

OECD Forum 2017
Schools should teach pupils how to spot ‘fake news’, by Sean Coughlan, BBC, 18 March 2017.

* The British Standards Institution’s Kitemark is a “quality mark [that] confirms that a product or service has been thoroughly tested and checked, time and again, and proven to meet a recognised industry standard or need. It’s a voluntary mark manufacturers and service industries use to demonstrate safety, reliability and quality”.

Photo credit: @shutterstock 

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