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UK government publishes skills-focused anti-disinformation plan

Online Media Literacy Strategy aims to train teachers and care-givers in understanding disinformation so they can help others in safely navigating the internet

The UK government has outlined plans to upskill teachers, library workers, youth workers and carers so they can help children and disabled people safely navigate the internet as part of its new strategy to fight disinformation online.

The Online Media Literacy Strategy – published on 14 July 2021 by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – aims to support more than 170 organisations currently working to improve media literacy rates in the UK.

According to regulator Ofcom, 40% of adult internet users in the UK do not have the skills to critically assess content online, while studies by the National Literacy Trust have found that children up to the age of 15 are particularly vulnerable because just 2% have the critical thinking skills needed to tell fact from fiction online.

As part of the strategy, the government is launching a number of new initiatives, including a Train the Trainer programme to help teachers, carers and others improve their own media literacy abilities, while also supporting the development of media literacy capabilities in those they teach or care for.

This will also include teaching on how the online environment works, including how online news articles and social media posts are generated and paid for, and how to critically analyse the content they consume.

“False or confused information spread online could threaten public safety and undermine our democracy,” said digital minister Caroline Dinenage. “We are legislating to make tech platforms more accountable for this, but people still need the right skills to distinguish between fact and fiction online.

“Through the Media Literacy Strategy, we will channel the efforts of dedicated UK organisations and bring the fight to fake news by making the young, vulnerable and wider online community more resistant and resilient to it.”

To put the strategy into effect, the government has committed to spending £340,000 over the 2021/22 financial year, and has pledged to publish future Action Plans annually over three years until the end of the 2024/25 financial year.

“The Action Plans will be dynamic and agile, allowing us to respond to new and emerging research, trends and needs within the media literacy sector,” said the strategy document. “We will also use future Action Plans to report on our progress in tackling the media literacy challenges, and evaluate initiatives we have delivered.”

It added that the government would also seek to publish interim updates about its work and progress.

To inform the content and delivery of media literacy education, the strategy outlines a Media Literacy Framework of best practice principles. Areas covered by the framework include data and privacy, online environment, information consumption, online consequences and online engagement.

It also identifies six key challenges for the media literacy sector: evaluating the reach of the educational programmes; funding the new programmes; engaging with hard-to-reach audiences; the lack of provisions and institutional support for vulnerable users; building up audience resilience to disinformation; and the overall coordination of all these efforts.

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Vicki Shotbolt, founder and CEO of childcare app Parent Zone, said: “In a world where school, social, work and family life is increasingly lived online, having the right skills and knowledge is vital to ensure all parents and children are able to explore everything the online world has to offer, confidently and safely.

“The Media Literacy Strategy is an ideal opportunity to ensure people of all generations and backgrounds are supported to thrive online, and we look forward to continuing to work with the government to build on the progress made so far with this important initiative.”

To support closer collaboration between the UK’s media literacy organisations, the government will also establish a cross-sector Media Literacy Taskforce, with representatives from tech platforms, civil society and academia, so that collective action can be taken to remove any barriers to improving literacy online.

An online portal will also provide a “one-stop shop” for users to access resources about media literacy and online safety generally, which will seek to equip them with key skills and knowledge to spot disinformation and make safer decisions online.

Following the racist abuse of England footballers in the aftermath of the Euros 2020 final on 11 July, the government has also announced it will extend football banning orders – which are currently used to prevent those with a history of violence at matches from attending – to those who are abusive on social media in connection with football.

“The tech firms know what is coming down the track with our tough new online safety laws, but must use their ingenuity and considerable resources to stop this racist online abuse now,” said culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

“We are going to work with football authorities this coming season to drive the change that’s needed, and we will make sure these individuals are nowhere near our national game. Social media firms must improve safety measures on their sites and ensure they help the authorities find and punish these racist abusers. It’s time for them to step up, so their platforms can’t be used as weapons of hate.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson added that the government is “working closely with the football and police authorities to ensure we can track and take action against online abusers and will ban them from football grounds in the same way we would if they had committed these offences on our streets”.

Johnson has previously said it was “OK to boo players” taking the knee – a symbolic gesture against racism – and has been accused of making racist remarks in his past work as a journalist, which he denies.

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