The use of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter… insert digital media platform here) often leads to sharing, liking and reposting information. This information can take many forms, but includes news articles, images, videos, new research, statistics, and other forms of digital data. Accompanying this increase in our consumption of digital information is a growing level of trust in these networks to feed us accurate and factual information. Yet as consumers, it our individual responsibility to be aware of the digital information and data we interact with. The skills and knowledge involved with this are termed digital literacy.

This makes for an important question: just how digitally literate am I? It may come as a shock to fellow 'young people', but unfortunately it is a misconception that people born within the digital age are more digitally literate than their predecessors. Research (Greene et al, 2014) has typically termed this group of people as 'digital natives', while previous generations are termed 'digital migrants' as they have had to migrate into the world of technology rather than being born into it. Paul Gilster first popularised the term digital literacy in his book, Digital Literacy, published in 1997. A recent review of the digital literacy literature (Hagel, 2012a) focuses more on literacies rather than media and involves finding, using and disseminating information in a digital world. UNICEF defines digital literacy as finding, using, sharing, making, and critically evaluating a variety of media contents.

According to Greene, et al (2014), Digital Literacy is the cognitive process that individuals partake in during the utilisation of computer-based, multimodal information. They also say that there are two aspects of DL:

  1. The ability to effectively plan and monitor the efficacy of strategies used to search and manage the wealth of information available online
  2. The knowledge to appropriately vet and integrate those information sources.

The development of these skills is taking a front seat in recent changes within the education sector. Deakin University has specifically added digital literacy skills as a key university graduate attribute and the recent review of the NSW Schools curriculum (NSW Education Standards, 2017) places digital literacy skills as a key 21st Century skill required by school students. Numerous studies (Ng, 2011; Çam, E., & Kiyici, M., 2017; Greene et al., 2014) over the last 5-8 years have identified that not only are digital natives more competent with technological tools, they are also more proficient in communicating, socialising and sharing on a range of applications and tools.

Unfortunately, at the foundation of the gap in digital literacy across all age groups is a limited ability to effectively use, search, evaluate and critically review the information they are presented with through (primarily social media) digital mediums. Now let’s not waggle our fingers at these young people too much, as digital migrants have long been grappling with this gap in their own skills. The terms 'digital native' and 'digital migrant' are problematic. They do not account for the varied levels of digital literacy amongst people, nor do they account for the levels of digital proficiency that people display. More accurate terms might be 'digital visitor' and 'digital resident', which place people on a continuum based on their use of the particular technological tool/source. A digital visitor would be new to the particular source/tool and may only visit this once for a specific task. A digital resident is more proficient on the tool and source.

As we move between a range of digital mediums our level of literacy also changes: as a visitor we may not be as literate as we would be with sources we use regularly. Websites such as Media Watch, ABC Fact Check, and Snopes base their work around reviewing and identifying misleading news sites, information and claims. These sites bring to the front the prevalence of misinformation and highlight the lack of sufficient digital literacy skills across society. Digital information continues to spread and influence people quite strongly. Why then can false information and 'fake news' spread so easily? This aspect is more a commentary on how digital information is now shared and consumed. A study conducted on both true and false Twitter posts between 2006-2017, identified that from a cascade of 126,000 news posts tweeted by 3 million people over 4.5 million times, false news stories spread six times as fast. The most prolific stories involved politics, terrorism, natural disasters and science. Unfortunately, we are more attracted to novelty, shock and controversy and, through our online behaviour, will be more prone to share this type of information. The 2018 Australian Digital News Report from the University of Canberra revealed that from 2,036 people surveyed, 73% of Australian news consumers have experienced a range of fake news, including:

  • poor journalism (40%).
  • politically or commercially fabricated news (25%)
  • stories pushing a political agenda (38%);
  • advertorial (33%);
  • satire (25%); and
  • the use of the term ‘fake news’ to discredit the media (37%)

Furthermore, only recently has there been more scrutiny placed on social media sites such as Facebook and Google to conduct fact-checking. However, there is no requirement for any online 'information' to actually be fact-checked before being shared. As users we have more access to and demand information faster and easier, yet when we consume this information, do we actually know and can we trust what we are putting in our mouth? Even this article and this website is a source of online information which you as a reader are consuming. Within this article claims have been made, information has been shared and it is attempting to elicit a reaction from (you) the reader. Even after reading this article, you may choose to believe everything that has been written, quoted and argued within it without checking it for facts. As digitally literate consumers what steps can be taken to be more conscious and critical of the digital information we consume? A number of critical thinking questions listed in the table below can be used when we encounter information through our online sources to avoid being misled.

A useful guide to spotting a misleading online article is to look out for some of the following warning signs:

  • The author is not an expert or from a reputable source
  • Claims and evidence cannot be backed up
  • Numerous spelling and grammar mistakes
  • The information is not current
  • The study or data used is not current or relevant to the audience
  • The source/information is sponsored by a particular company/organisation
  • There is no evidence backing claims or the studies used are not reputable

Similar to how we are conscious consumers of food products, and are aware of the influence of product placement, advertisements and misleading information, this level of awareness is required when we delve into the immense ocean which is digital information. While digital literacy includes competence at using technological hardware and software, a much more complex skill is analysing the myriad of information and data we are exposed to through digital platforms. Unfortunately, while we all enjoy being able to say 'I read it on Google', the Google machine has its downside. As we become more digitally literate consumers of online information, we can be more aware and better informed by using reputable and accurate sources of information. This will then subsequently avoid the spread and influence of misinformation. Ultimately, it is an individual's responsibility to be more digitally literate and alert to the influence 'fake' information can have on our daily lives.