Towards Equal and Universal Access to Knowledge
Information Society is a term for “a society in which the creation, distribution, and manipulation of information has become the most significant economic and cultural activity”, as opposed to “societies in which the economic underpinning is primarily Industrial or Agrarian.” (Source: TechTarget). While information can generate knowledge, it is not knowledge in itself. The concept of knowledge societies encompasses much broader social, ethical and political dimensions. According to UNESCO, knowledge societies are about capabilities to identify, produce, process, transform, disseminate and use information to build and apply knowledge for human development. They require an empowering social vision that encompasses plurality, inclusion, solidarity and participation. (Source: International Bureau of Education).
Major Challenges for the Development of Knowledge Societies
ICTs have enormous potential when it comes to creating a competitive economy, a sustainable future, and a democratic and open society. In a 2005 report, Towards Knowledge Societies, UNESCO argues that the spread of new technologies and the emergence of the internet have created fresh opportunities to achieve genuine knowledge societies. (Source: UNESCO). However, much of the global population still lacks access to ICTs. Furthermore, the current excess of information we’re seeing as a result of the internet and social media does not necessarily equal greater knowledge for those that do have access. Without the education that allows us to distinguish between “useful” and “useless” information, what we’re seeing is just “a mass of indistinct data.” We outline these two key challenges below:
“Technology allows anyone with a smartphone or an internet connection the ability to be informed without limits or territorial barriers. However, despite having greater access to content, news and direct sources, it creates the paradox of a society that is more uninformed than ever in the history of mankind.”
Cristina Colom, Director, Digital Future Society (Source: Ethic)
Social media supports the ability to disseminate all kinds of content, whether false, unverified, erroneous, manipulated, invented or out of context. Its ephemeral nature, the brevity of messages and the short attention span of users, are all conducive to lowering the quality and credibility of information. Furthermore, the viralization of information through social networks means that disinformation can reach a vast number of people in a matter of seconds. Some citizens are equipped to understand these new dynamics, but many struggle to identify disinformation for lack of context.
“The system of globalised information has reached a point of entropy and now produces only disbelief. It is not so much that lies have become the norm and the truth is prohibited or disregarded, but rather that lies and the truth now cannot usually be told apart.” Aurélie Filippetti and Christian Salmon. Faster than the Future, Digital Future Society
Disinformation has the potential to deepen distrust in institutions, resulting in weaker democracies and disempowered citizens. Today, voters go to social media to inform themselves and political actors can leverage this to manipulate public opinion. Humans naturally tend to favour information that strengthens prior ideological positions, deepening political identities and leading to polarisation. With elections now linked to the instability of online media, we’re witnessing the disintegration of democratic deliberation.
What Can We Do to Strengthen Democratic Institutions?
Knowledge is the foundation of a democratic society. It stimulates active citizenship, lifelong learning and social change. The fight against disinformation and the strengthening of democratic institutions are part of Goal 16 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, aimed at promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies. In order to achieve this goal, administrations, companies, technological platforms, verification agencies and citizens must join forces to leverage technology and education against disinformation.
“We must promote a critical spirit, attacking it at the root. We must work from the beginning to incorporate digital literacy into the educational system, teaching how to filter sources, instil critical thinking and know how to determine when information is -or is not- truthful.” Cristina Colom, Director, Digital Future Society (Source: Ethic)
A strong democracy requires high-quality independent media, pluralistic opinion and the ability to negotiate public consensus. Media literacy must become a key priority for governments and organisations. It helps people think critically, recognize points of view, and identify disinformation. In short, it is an essential tool to empower citizens in the digital age.