Transforming Literacy for the Digital Age: Strategies to Boost Reading and Learning in the Arab World

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by ARIJ’s AFCN Team.

In a world full of ever-evolving technologies such as artificial intelligence, deepfakes, and algorithms, misinformation has become more easily circulated than ever, posing an unprecedented challenge and demanding online users to become more ‘literate’ in consuming media messages.

For decades, Media and Information Literacy (MIL)—defined by UNESCO as a composite set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, competencies, and practices that allow to effectively access, analyze, critically evaluate, interpret, use, create, disseminate information and media products—has been extensively promoted as an essential skill for mindful news consumption. However, it is no longer the sole skill needed to navigate today’s information landscape. The concept itself has grown vague and inaccurate in describing the essential skills needed to navigate the complexities of the digital media realm. Technological advancements have brought about the demand for literacy skills across multiple other domains, including digital literacy, visual literacy, and artificial intelligence literacy.

Media literacy remains the most established concept globally, with research indicating its promising role in combating information disorder. However, to date, Arab nations are still unsystematic and inconsistent in their efforts to promote it. Most Arab literacy initiatives are spearheaded by independent organizations rather than governmental efforts. Examples include the Tunisian Association for Media Education, the Media and Information Literacy Center in Jordan, and the Media Literacy Project in Iraq, all of which produce educational media content. Some initiatives are also funded by international associations rather than national ones, such as the media literacy initiative by Al-Fanar Media, an Egyptian news organization, which received a grant from the Ford Foundation to cultivate media literacy skills among university students across the Arab world, aiming to enhance their abilities in questioning the veracity of online information.

Digital literacy is a contemporary concept that has garnered significant attention among media professionals, especially with the widespread adoption of digital technologies in the media sphere. It focuses on empowering audiences to use digital tools efficiently, safeguard their online privacy, and responsibly engage in digital communities.

While media literacy focuses on the critical consumption of media content, digital literacy encompasses broader skills related to effectively navigating and utilizing digital technologies and platforms. Cultivating digital literacy skills is crucial for comprehending the way media outlets leverage online technologies, such as algorithms and cookies, to manipulate public opinion.

It serves as a defensive shield against online information disorder. Being digitally literate enables individuals to effectively navigate online information in the current post-truth era, whereby media messages are vast and complex. Despite the significance of digital literacy, there remains a notable lack of initiatives to enhance such skills among Arabs. One prominent exception is the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (MDLAB), a Lebanese educational initiative that regularly offers workshops and training sessions to help students and professionals develop analytical skills in navigating the digital media landscape, thereby making informed decisions that limit the spread of online misinformation. Another notable initiative is the Digital Citizenship in Tunisia, which promotes digital literacy and civic engagement across the Arab world.

Visual literacy is a crucial subset of media and digital literacy. It emphasizes enhancing individuals’ skills to interpret and analyze visual content. In today’s digitally driven world, visuals hold significant influence over public perceptions, often capturing audiences’ attention more effectively than text-based information. As such, cultivating visual literacy skills is essential for comprehending the complexities of visual content and discerning potential mis/disinformation conveyed through visual manipulation. Visual literacy enables individuals to navigate the visual aspects of media content critically and responsibly. The proliferation of innovative visual devices, such as GIFs and reels, which act as potent tools for spreading online information in a concise and emotionally appealing manner has amplified the importance of visual literacy. However, Arab nations, like many other regions, continue to prioritize media and digital literacy, which may overshadow efforts to promote visual literacy among online users.

More recently, artificial intelligence technologies have become increasingly integrated into the media sphere, challenging individuals’ ability to distinguish between human-generated and AI-generated content. AI tools have exacerbated the concerns over online information disorder, as various entities misuse them to produce and disseminate mis/disinformation at a low cost and in a timely manner. Consequently, AI literacy has emerged as an essential facet of literacy, which would enable users to comprehend the evolving role of AI technologies in information dissemination processes.

Cultivating AI literacy skills can empower online users to understand the capabilities of AI tools and their influence on the media landscape. This includes understanding how AI algorithms operate, recognizing AI-generated images and deepfake videos, as well as being aware of new tools for validating AI-generated content. In this regard, ARIJ network along with its Arab Fact-Checking Network (AFCN) have collaborated with Full Fact to develop AI fact-checking tools in Arabic, aiming to integrate artificial intelligence technologies in the work of Arab media outlets and fact-checking organizations. However, more Arab initiatives are needed to equip users and media personnel with extensive AI literacy that enables them to navigate the current automated information landscape.

In conclusion, technological advancements have brought about significant changes in the media landscape, which underscores the necessity for promoting a comprehensive literacy approach to maximize individuals’ ability to navigate the online information landscape. Although media literacy remains a crucial skill, its scope has expanded to include many other skills, such as digital, visual, and artificial intelligence literacy, which can collectively contribute to a more literate and resilient society to encounter online information disorder. Therefore, media organizations and governments are encouraged to develop holistic policies and strategies that cultivate a combination of various literacy skills among their citizens.