Published in Sep-Oct 2021
Although the rise in access to digital media is palpable, this trend doesn’t necessarily reflect the correct usage of social media. Why is digital literacy important for everyone and how can it save one from virtual foibles or idiocy?
“Can’t work. Down with fever. Need to get some rest,” typed Sana to her boss one morning. A few hours later, her boss (a colleague of mine at the time) was fuming in the office corridor pointing his finger at the mobile screen where two young women were beaming at me. This was an hour-old Instagram story that had a flamboyant “out and about” sticker plastered underneath the grinning faces. One of them was Sana. She did not realise that her boss could see her update while pretending to call in sick. After this social media faux pas, no one trusted Sana again.
It was an online action that had real-life, professional consequences, and incidents like these are common. They all pinpoint an underlying problem – ignorance regarding the dynamics of digital media. In a society where communication increasingly relies on virtual media, digital literacy is very important. Put simply, digital literacy includes the skills and awareness required to correctly use digital technologies, like the internet, social media and mobile devices. Through time and experience, many of you may have gathered an understanding of the right kind of digital usage; you may know how to access the apps on your phone, how to play around with the privacy settings of different platforms, what language to use or even how to use the correct hashtags. Yet, you may come across virtual behaviours that reflect a certain degree of ignorance or carelessness regarding the mediums in use. So, why is digital literacy important for everyone and how can it save one from virtual idiocy?
I can’t help but wish that Sana had been more careful, whatever the reason she had for skipping office that day. When it comes to caution in the digital realm, some people may be overly so – spending hours pondering on whether they should post anything at all. Others vicariously post, or share or comment on anything and everything. While these are two extremes, a digitally aware person knows how to be vigilant because he or she understands the nature of social media, or more specifically, its permanence. Think about it. If whatever goes online stays there forever, then you should put your best foot forward. In this regard, think about all those Facebook posts from 2015 on a brand’s page. They are permanent snapshots of narratives communicated by brands back then and these brand pages are actively creating social trails. Apart from brands, individuals engaging in social media are also creating unique social trails – and a good social trail means a good online social reputation – and this is very important because your virtual self can have real-life consequences. No matter who you are, how you appear to be online, has value – it can affect earning power. The wrong kind of customer review can be devastating in terms of sales, an incorrect endorsement can result in a fall in followers and online work rants can reach the wrong kind of people and get you fired. I personally know a friend who was hired at her workplace and later found out that she was chosen over another candidate because of a cleaner reputation on social media.
Appropriate Online Social Conduct
So, what is a good social trail? Isn’t that subjective? Of course, there is no absolute and correct way to be social, but just like in the real world there are dos and don’ts for social interactions, the same can be said for digital. The internet is full of people from different backgrounds. If you respect social media etiquettes, you not only create a better social media self, you also interact with other people more seamlessly. The most obvious no-go bucket includes posting provocative jokes, engaging in hate speech and promoting fraudulent behaviour, even in private groups. People typically undermine the significance of their controversial tweets or their provocative memes. There are instances that prove that inappropriate online behaviour is not only interpreted negatively but has devastating consequences. An example from 2017 illustrates this, when Harvard rescinded its acceptance offers to almost 10 incoming students for posting offensive jokes regarding shootings on a private Facebook group. I may sound like a Facebook Policy Breach Notice email when I say: avoid offensive. The point is not to scare you into believing that your funny, silly online self might offend somebody. Neither are you being asked to be dull, or overly sanitised online. You can be funny and interesting without tarnishing your reputation. Just be respectful and empathetic towards the platform and its denizens.
Accuracy of Information
“Just Google it!” Funny how it has become second nature for most of us. But while we are at it, it’s important to be aware of the way online platforms operate in terms of providing information. Not all news ‘off the internet’ can be treated the same way; the source matters. Sure, the speed of access to vital information online is commendable. But prudence is key. You should be able to ascertain the difference between an advert and a scholarly result, a biased and an impartial result or authentic news versus false news. A 2018 study by Statista showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world. Why? Because this spread of information is accompanied by an equally vigorous spread of misinformation and nothing highlights this more than Covid-19, when many digital users responded to the pandemic by spreading false and potentially harmful information. Whether it was a Facebook status on the nature of the virus or forwarded messages on WhatsApp regarding a cure, people were plagued with fake news and uncertainty. I am not blaming the internet for the pandemic; what I am trying to highlight is that the dark side of digital thrives when information is not handled with care. The good thing is that since the onset of the pandemic, governments and international organisations have worked towards providing authentic sources of information and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter now allow people to report content that they believe to be false or misleading. Thus, apart from consuming verified information, a digitally literate denizen of social media can also help prevent the spread of fake information.
And now, I revisit my original plea. Please don’t be a dig-idiot! With digital literacy, we can be mindful of the correct usage of digital media, enact appropriate online social conduct and be better equipped to gauge the accuracy of online information.
Aneera Fareed is Social Media Manager, BBDO. Pakistan.