truth, lies and the internet a report into young people’s digital fluency


The internet is now almost certainly the greatest source of information for people living in the UK today. We use it to read up on what is happening in the world, to get advice about things that worry us, to argue and collaborate, to decide who to vote for and who to date. The information we access and consume on the internet is central to forming our attitudes, our beliefs, our views about the world around us and our sense of who we are within it.

The amount of information available to us at the click of a mouse when making these decisions can be both liberating and asphyxiating. Although there are more e-books, trustworthy journalism, niche expertise and accurate facts and figures at our fingertips than ever before, there are equally unprecedented amounts of mistakes, half-truths, mistruths, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and general nonsense.

Making sense of all this – knowing how to discriminate the good, reliable, trustworthy or useful information from the bad – is therefore of tremendous importance. The ability to make these difficult judgments matters to everyone but especially young people, for whom the internet is a more important medium than any other group.

Our research shows, however, that many young people are not careful, discerning users of the internet. They are unable to find the information they are looking for or trust the first thing they do. They do not apply fact checks to the information they find. They are unable to recognize bias and propaganda and will not go to a varied number of sources. As a result, they are too often influenced by information they should probably discard. This makes them vulnerable to the pitfalls and rabbit holes of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams. Inaccurate content, online misinformation and conspiracy theories (such as those which surround the death of Osama bin Laden) are appearing in the classroom.

The potential consequences of this on society as a whole are unknown. One danger is that young people are more likely to be seduced by extremist and violent ideas. As we have argued elsewhere, many terrorist groups are fed by bogus online material circulating unchallenged on online echo chambers. Anders Breivik, the recent Oslo terrorist, is a devastating but only the most recent example of the power of internet material to radicalize.

The answer is not greater censorship or a tighter control over internet content. The task is to ensure that young people can make careful, skeptical and savvy judgments about the internet content they will, inevitably, encounter. This would allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes, and better navigate the murkier and greyer waters of argument and opinion.

The ability to judge the merits of different pieces of information is not new; it is the basis of much of classical philosophy. However, the architecture and functionality of the internet makes the job of separating the wheat from the chaff even harder. A specific body of skills and knowledge is required to make informed judgments. We use the term ‘digital fluency’ to describe this competence: the ability to find and critically evaluate online information. It is a combination of ‘old’ critical thinking skills, such as source verification, and ‘new’ knowledge about how the digital world works, such as understanding search engines. These are the bedrock skills necessary for the individual to use the internet to search, retrieve, contextualize, analyze, visualize, and synthesize information effectively.

We undertook two new pieces of reserach to determine the extent of digital fluency among young people in the UK. First, we reviewed current literature relating to digital fluency, including 17 surveys and other research papers, studies and reports undertaken between 2005 and 2010. Second, we conducted a survey of 509 teachers in England and Wales about the extent of their pupils' digital fluency.

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Jamie Bartlett
Carl Miller

Published by Demos 2011.

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Publication Date: 
November 21, 2011