In the digital age, democracy depends on information literacy

a close up of a stack of newspapers

As we mark National News Literacy Week, I have been reflecting on Microsoft’s commitment to news and media literacy and the central role it plays in a healthy information ecosystem. At Microsoft, we firmly believe that these are essential life skills and critical to preserving and strengthening democracy.

How people consume news has changed drastically in the past 20 years, largely due to the introduction of digital news and media, growth of the tech sector and changes in the business model for local news. This evolution has brought with it many advantages – the democratization and diversification of news sources, faster access to breaking news, as well as connections and insights into communities we might not otherwise have previously been able to access.

This digital evolution also brings with it new challenges for media consumers, as the information environment is vast, complex and often misleading. When purported local news sites aren’t what they appear, and foreign propaganda machines are spreading false narratives across the globe, it is easy to see why news consumers have a hard time identifying sources of information and deciphering whether a source is trustworthy. This is the context in which falsehoods spread significantly faster than truth, and in which trust and confidence in the media continue to decline.

In a 2021 U.S. study, where around 3,500 students were presented six information literacy-related tasks, the vast majority struggled on all of them. Nearly 96% failed to identify a website’s connection to a biased party and two-thirds were unable to distinguish news stories from ads on a popular website’s homepage. These challenges are not unique to young people. In a 2020 global study conducted by Ipsos and The Trust Project, only half of the 20,000 adults surveyed said they try to ensure the news they consume comes from trustworthy sources.

These are not easy problems for society to solve. Yet we know that democracies thrive when there is a vibrant town square full of ideas and debate, particularly when the community is supported by a healthy supply of journalism and trustworthy information. Democracies also thrive when the people are informed, engaged and resilient.

To help equip people to better understand and have confidence in the information they consume, recent research has pointed to utilizing information inoculation methods that can be scaled and disseminated. Media literacy campaigns are not designed to tell anyone what to believe or how to think; rather, they are about equipping people to think critically and make informed decisions about what information they consume.

Microsoft’s information literacy efforts

In this challenging information environment, Microsoft firmly believes that empowering consumers with the tools necessary to find, consume and share authoritative information is critical to supporting healthy information ecosystems and, therefore, thriving democracies.

In 2022, Microsoft increased our investment in our Information Literacy Program, partnering with leading news and media literacy non-profits, including the News Literacy Project (NLP), a collaboration led by The Trust Project on the Trust Indicators and Verified to develop campaigns built on industry research and best practices. Microsoft provided funding for the research and development of the campaigns as well as threat intelligence insights, technical expertise and in-kind ad space on Microsoft platforms to promote the programs.

Together with these partners, Microsoft ran an information literacy campaign across several of our platforms. Our post-campaign findings indicate:

  • Large numbers of consumers are concerned about being misled by inaccurate information or “tricked” into sharing inaccurate content and feel they lack needed tools.
  • People who engage with information literacy content demonstrate an increase in their ability to identify false and misleading information.
  • Those who participate in information literacy education report being highly likely to share their knowledge with their personal network.

While each campaign varied in its specific goals and methods, the key outcomes included:

  1. An improved understanding regarding the reasons information is created: to document events, to inform, to entertain, to provoke emotions or another reason.
  2. Increased ability to identify red flags such as possible manipulated content, personal attacks or cherry-picked information.
  3. Further empowerment to act, whether by developing methods for validating sources or being empowered to identify an emotional response and then choosing to pause and not share.

We leveraged Microsoft’s news service Start and Outlook advertising banners to promote NLP and Trust Indicators campaigns to a broad audience of news consumers in the United States. Over 100 million consumers were reached with the above literacy messages and tens of thousands of those chose to further their learning by clicking through to delve deeper into our partner campaigns.

News Literacy Project (NLP): Quiz -Do you have an eye for credibility? — News Literacy Project

Studies show that active participation can improve a reader’s ability to spot deception. To activate users, the NLP campaign encouraged adult consumers to undertake a short quiz that tests a person’s ability to identify why the information they are seeing might be identified as inaccurate. The quiz helps people better identify current trends in online deception and demonstrates the complexity of the problem. For example, recently, people have been editing online pictures of celebrities and changing the messages printed on their T-shirts or clothing. Typically, the editor does this to capitalize on the celebrity’s popularity to garner support for a particular movement or simply to get free advertising for a product. The NLP quiz tackles this trend.

The Trust Project: Quiz – The Trust Project

The Trust Indicators campaign, a collaboration between The Trust Project, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public and Accelerating Social Transformation program, produced a quiz asking participants to identify what characteristics would lead them to believe the news they are reading is trustworthy. The questions and answers in the quiz aim to inform people about the Trust Project’s 8 Trust Indicators, which are the eight core features of journalism that will help readers assess the integrity of a news site.

Verified: Information Literacy Course

The challenges posed by propaganda campaigns and misleading content are global, and therefore the need for information literacy programs is universal. As we work to expand our support for information literacy programs, we first focused on Spanish-speaking populations outside of the U.S., as it was recently revealed that these populations have been highly targeted by Russian media and propaganda. Microsoft’s 2022 Digital Defense Report recently exposed the scope and scale of the challenge, highlighting that consumption of Russian propaganda news sites in Spanish is almost double that of English language news.

To tackle this challenge, we collaborated with Verified, a partnership between the United Nations and Purpose, to identify Spanish-speaking populations with heightened vulnerability. Working with prominent organizations in Latin America, Verified identified that young people in the 16-25 age range were one of the groups particularly at risk. People in this age group are still forming their civic habits, so regular exposure to false and misleading information has the potential to disrupt their long-term civic engagement. Younger people were seen to have a more incidental, rather than directed, consumption of news, jumping from one screen to another, “snacking” on bits of information, which include pictures of friends, posts by family members and news, resulting in them spending less time analyzing the content.

The Microsoft-supported Verified campaign invited students aged 18-25 in urban areas in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru to participate in an information literacy course, created in collaboration with wikiHow and Chequeado. The course aimed to empower individuals to recognize and counter propaganda in their own networks, while raising awareness of the tactics and tools used by bad actors online.

Continued investment in information literacy and newsrooms

The need for news and information literacy education is more important than ever as we continue to see time spent online increase, a growth in the number of people that primarily get their news via social media and an increase in the scale and sophistication of foreign information influence campaigns.

Over the past six months, Microsoft has committed financial resources, threat intelligence insights, in-kind advertising space and technical expertise as part of our information literacy program and, in partnership with leading literacy education providers, has produced cutting-edge research and best practices on how to create impactful media literacy campaigns. Going forward, we plan to continue to invest in information literacy programs, firm in our belief that media literacy is an essential life skill and critical to effective civic participation in the digital age.

We will continue to engage with our global partners to share findings, and we will build on the learnings gleaned from those who lead in this space, such as the governments of Finland and Sweden, who have spent decades building whole-of-society information literacy programs.

And we will continue our efforts to equip our users with the tools necessary to find, consume and share information. For students and teachers, Microsoft has some exciting announcements coming during our Reimagine Education event on February 9.

While the proliferation of rumors and half-truths and the deliberate spread of propaganda in our information environment can at times feel overwhelming, we are heartened by the proven positive impact news and media literacy education has had in response to these challenges. This National News Literacy Week, I encourage you to reflect on the vital role news and information literacy plays in a democracy and invite you to check out some of our partner resources such as NLP’s eye for credibility quiz, which is a challenging, fun and educational experience!

For more information on Microsoft’s Democracy Forward efforts, visit Democracy Forward – Protecting Democracy | Microsoft CSR 

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