MMA Director: Reflections on Safer Internet Day 2018

Today is a really important day, and unlike other big political meetings there will actually be some real outcomes.

Safer Internet Day (SID) is a day that will grow in importance. Why? Because while many in the room today are digitally savvy, and while many if not most now have digital devices as extensions of ourselves, we haven’t really begun to understand the real impact this digital shift is having on every aspect of our lives. Yes, things are much easier and faster and more colorful but there are very real risks as well.  Some of them counter intuitive.

Convergence isn’t just a buzz word: it is a lived reality. Anyone who has smart phone has internalized convergence – the merging of a variety of technologies into one device. You can message, watch videos, write, do your diary, keep up with the news, play games, be legal, be illegal, bully, be bullied, be inspired, and oh yes you can still do something called “make telephone calls”. Convergence isn’t just on our phones, it exists within them, within entities and programmers. Facebook doesn’t just know who our friends are and recommend more, or show us cool stuff, they are just about to launch ‘Classified’ so you can buy and sell. Google doesn’t just know what you searched, it can tell you when to leave for a meeting and help you choose what car to buy.

Convergence has spread even further. Our digital reality has now brought just about everything and everyone together. We have the racists and rights activists, pedophiles and politicians, poets and pornographers, the serious and the silly, fascists and feminists, the fruitcakes and the finest minds, the awful and the amazing, the insipid and the inspiring, the corrupt and the champions of justice. The full spectrum from scum to mum. And we have all these increasing at a rate faster and more than we can begin to grasp. More than 400 hours of You Tube videos are uploaded EVERY minute and 1 billion Facebook posts every day!

This explosion of information means that in some sense we should, as Turkish Academic Zeynep Tufekci puts it be, “living in the golden age of freedom of expression”, where you can find anything, where all voices can be heard and opinions expressed.  This is true to a degree but already see that existing and emerging power dynamics mean that this isn’t the case. We have machines and algorithms deciding and filtering, but how do they do this and who decides? Those who shout louder, are more angry or emotional, gain more traction than the reasoned and considered. The extremists and fascists acquire an equivalence of voice beyond their support. Just look at the actions of Bell Pottinger.

The question of course is how we choose to respond to this. We could opt out and simply ban the internet and the emerging digital reality, which is well and fine but we will lose out on the huge benefits it brings.

This is why we are so thrilled today to be launching not only WebRangers with our brilliant, brilliant partners but also Media Transformers. For us our best response is to equip the public, children and young people in particular with the necessary skills to navigate our emerging digital reality. We have no idea where it is going, but we can give young people the skills to help ensure we realize the amazing democracy that our country has the promise and potential to become.

In particular we focus on being critical, the ability to know how to find information, to be skeptical of what we consume, to behave online as we would like all to behave in our analogue world – with decency, respect for human rights and dignity – and to have fun and reach our potential along the way.

But there is another critical set of skills that this year’s WebRangers and Media Transformers will be acquiring.  What the explosion of fake/dodgy news has shown is that with the explosion of sources of information it is absolutely critical that our young people know not only how to find information and exercise their digital rights in a safe environment online, but also that they know who to trust and where to find credible information. These skills, recognized by the visionaries and progressives in our education system are not just nice to haves but increasingly will be more essential than drivers licences!  It is highly likely that the young people in this room won’t need drivers licences in 15 years but they will need these skills. Without these skills, not only do we expose our children to the extreme risk those would seek to beguile and defile them but we also set them at a disadvantage to their digital development.

This is why this day is so critical. But there is one final issue of convergence I need to stress. This is that convergence isn’t just our devices, programmes and information – it is also our approach. Media is no longer the exclusive preserve for those who produce it.  Our WebRangers this year will produce amazing videos of their own. Government is no longer the only big player in the room. We have tech companies who themselves are grappling with the same challenges, of how to weed out and combat hate speech, bullying and misinformation. These things matter and they matter profoundly.

This is why WebRangers works – because we have the relevant critical partners involved. We have the platforms like Google and Facebook, we have the operators like MTN, we have the experts like ourselves, PPM and Digital You and we have our democratically elected government partners like the FPB.

So, this launch is about Safer Internet Day, about WebRangers and Media Transformers. It is also about taking clear, focused step towards building and protecting our democracy and freedom of expression. So, for all of those who you who will be doing it this year, know that not only will you learn new things and acquire new skills, you will also be playing your part in making our world a better place.

William Bird

MMA Director