Digital information is power, and today citizens have this new power at their fingertips, channeled through reactions, comments, shares, saves and searches on our everyday digital platforms. However, this new power is ubiquitous and its direct effects remain obfuscated by the AI-powered black boxes of tech giants.
Unfortunately, we’re many times too eager to tell Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, or Jack Dorsey how to change their platform policies and algorithms to make the world a better place, but simultaneously failing to answer this:
What are our responsibilities as citizens in this new reality in which digital and physical, political and commercial, and private and public are seamlessly interwoven?
Today, citizens need new skills for understanding the complex and multidimensional power of digital information and its relationship to democratic society.
AI-powered information ecosystem and new citizenship
Trying to be up-to-date on what’s happening around us is a human condition. Today, everyone is trying to use that condition to catch your attention. And increasingly, AI-powered algorithmic systems decide what kind of information gets through to you.
The way information surfaces on your attention has changed. The way you can consume information has changed. The way you can evaluate information has changed. And the way you can react to information has changed.
Controlling information has always been power—or connected to power. Today’s algorithmically amplified information operations are powered on steroids.
In today’s world election campaigns spend unprecedented amounts of resources on digital platforms, trying to target the right people in the right time in the right place. An information operation in social media can make millions of people take to the streets under the same banner across the globe. Or a social video app of a foreign origin can be used to affect how people participate unpredictably in a local political event.
At the same time, powerful personalized computational propaganda can reach you day and night wherever you are. The people, organizations and machines behind malicious information operations are using, misusing and abusing the current mainstream platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube, to spread radicalizing material across the globe.
As a result, the way you can manifest your citizenship online and offline has changed. Through your algorithmic information flows and interfaces you have the power to influence—directly and indirectly—on other people’s opinions and choices, on the polls and on the streets.
This fundamental change affects your capacity to use your digital tools and services in an ethical and sustainable way.
New citizenship skills: data literacy, algorithm literacy and digital media literacy
No single platform or technology can alone solve the socio-technological challenges caused by information operations and computational propaganda. Developing methods against digital propaganda requires international multidisciplinary collaboration among tech companies, academia, societal powers, news media and educational institutions.
But, to truly get to the bottom of the issue, we need to remember that regardless of the huge power of tech giants or new regulations affecting social media platforms, individuals do have a crucial role in making our digital platforms safer for everyone.
Importantly, new citizenship skills are required for helping people to act more responsibly on digital platforms.
First, data literacy and algorithm literacy are needed for understanding the basic qualities and effects of data and algorithms that are constantly at work, influencing directly what you see, think and do online and beyond.
Data literacy lets you assess and observe your data trails and their usage in different systems. Algorithmic literacy gives you a basic idea and awareness on how different AI-powered systems personalize your experience, and how the power of algorithms is used to influence your interpretations, expectations and decision-making. These skills also make you more aware of your own (data) rights in digital platforms.
Could someone design and develop an engaging tool that would help you in achieving data and algorithm literacy, simultaneously being as frictionless as today’s mainstream social apps?
Second, up-to-date digital media literacy allows you to make more sense of your feeds that are a continuously changing algorithmic bricolage of serious and entertaining, fact and fiction, news and marketing as well as disinformation and misinformation.
Digital media literacy enables you to recognize benign and malicious information operations and tell the difference between deliberate spreading of disinformation and unconscious sharing of misinformation. In short, it empowers you to be more thoughtful in reacting to varying information operations that you experience online.
Importantly, more data-aware, algorithm-informed and digital-media-literate users can demand more sustainable and ethical choices from their digital platforms. At the same time, we need a new practice of citizen experience design that brings citizen-centric thinking and values into the very core of AI design and development.
It’s time to start talking more seriously and thoughtfully about the responsibilities of individuals, and the new citizenship skills that are required in today’s social media and tech platforms. In the long run, these new emerging citizenship skills will be crucial for the democratic societies across the globe.