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Navigating the Wartime Information Maze - Why Media Literacy in Youth Matters

Updated: Feb 9

During major world events, media has always been a powerful tool. In the example of the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed its beneficiary as well as disastrous consequences. However, no one can see the power of media as much as during times of conflict. Information becomes a weapon, shaping public opinion, influencing policy decisions, and going as far as to change the course of history. In school, we are taught about Soviet posters or American war propaganda, but there is a wrongful notion there - as time changed so did the propaganda. It would make sense to think that as a generation brought up digitally, we should be able to navigate through the labyrinth of information that reaches us, but the reality is not so optimistic. The situation is rather dire, as media illiteracy has only been on the rise.


What is propaganda and why you’re not immune to it


Propaganda by definition stands for the dissemination of information - facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies-to influence public opinion. At least this is what Britannica states. However, this definition doesn’t truly delve into the reason for how exactly propaganda influences us. How can an inert piece of paper or an internet article influence the trajectory of history? Its importance lies, perhaps, in the potent connection between propaganda and its emotional appeal. This aspect oftentimes becomes a leverage used to manipulate public opinions. And this is precisely where digital media today plays a big role. Propaganda as we know it, colorful posters, or public speeches in the big halls are heading toward our history books as we speak as the new format of propaganda takes over the world. Since the widespread usage of social media has become more varied, so has the content we consume. Everyone with a phone can share their first-hand experiences today, and the consequences of this can be seen as both positive and negative. For example, social media played a crucial role in the change of public opinions about the Palestinian conflict causing more and more people to question Israel’s policies. Moreover, social media often poses as the only circuit of communication in several countries under dictatorship, fostering the freedom of speech that is missing in its citizen's lives. On the other hand, something sinister is also lurking right behind the curtain. According to the study by The Trusted Web1, social media has become a primary source of information for more than 40% of the questioned citizens in Europe. This means that almost half of the population gets most of their information from platforms where anyone can express themselves, no matter if their contributions are nothing but biased opinions. It would be foolish to not think of this as a perfect breeding ground for a vast spread of misinformation that we can see happening today. Propaganda has now entered the digital realm camouflaged so well that it is less apparent than ever. The lines between genuine content and propaganda blur as propaganda now hides behind echo chambers, micro-targeting, and the infamous Artificial Intelligence. We may laugh at how obvious the state-ordained propaganda of the 20th century was, but we repeatedly fail to notice our shortcomings. The issue of propaganda in the 21st century has now become multi-faceted, penetrating every aspect of our online presence, and the worst thing is that we welcome it.


When a short attention span exemplifies apathy


Discourse concerning youth apathy has been around for decades, but there is a recent contribution to it that is truly concerning. Stats and graphs2 concerning our attention spans are nothing short of terrifying, showing that the average attention span of an adult today is only 8 seconds. This provides for a world where we live fast-paced lives and

consume content that needs to be sensational and entertaining to keep us focused. This consistent chase for the next interesting “click” can best be displayed in the example of the micro trends that plague our social media platforms every few months. Nevertheless, this issue has also found itself on our platforms during times of global conflicts and world crises. With the modern trend of anti-intellectualism, formal education is being valued less and less as time goes by. This way, everything can be questioned, even the established and previously accepted knowledge of the experts. Combined with the echo chambers and cognitive bias, it is hard to navigate discussions online when the contributors don’t even agree on what is facts and what is fiction. On the other hand, the creators of content must be highly opinionated on every global issue relevant at that moment and adjust their content accordingly. Whilst one could argue this has an altruistic basis, forcing the creators to utilize their platform for “education”, we rarely ask ourselves if that person is even competent to talk about complex political issues. This only goes to show that discussions about global conflicts have now gained a deviant value of entertainment, and what we feel the most towards short-lived entertainment is apathy. We consume the little bits of information when we feel like it, and the minute it doesn’t entertain or benefit us anymore we can simply put our phones down. In some twisted way, pictures of wars and human rights violations around the world have become fluid, floating around our screens and only being addressed when it's convenient for the narrative.


Taking our power back


Nevertheless, our future doesn’t have to be as dark as our present. The truth is that the internet and social media are nothing but tools, and if used correctly they could foster critical thinking amongst people in difficult times. Media illiteracy is something that needs to be addressed on several fronts but is also something we need to combat within ourselves. We need to resist the trend of notorious temporariness in all spheres of our lives and distance, ourselves from the roles of sole consumers in the context of global conflicts. Our generation is far more powerful than hashtags and five-second videos, and we need to conjure up the analytical skills that we lost as a society. Therefore, next time you catch yourself reading about political issues on social media, don’t forget to question sources, assess the credibility of information, and discern your own biases. Only then you can truly begin to make the world a better and safer place.


Tamara Grujić


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