Why is internet and social media literacy so important?

Find out what internet and social media literacy is. And what you can do become more social media literate in the age of ‘fake news’.

What does literacy mean?

Before we look at internet literacy, it is useful to understand what literacy means. Literacy is the ability to read and write and to understand the meaning of the words you read. Most of us learn how to read at school and are provided with a suitable material in a structured manner to develop this skill. 

What is Internet literacy?

Internet literacy is the ability to use devices, such as smartphones or laptops, to access the internet. It covers accessing websites and apps, navigating through them to access content and understanding, to some extent, how and why someone published that content online. The content you access on a website was put there by someone for a purpose, and the hyperlinks are chosen to direct you somewhere specific. Some content encourages responsible sharing through licenses such as Creative Commons while other content’s specific aim is go ‘go viral’. Likewise, the results from search engines such as Google are not purely information but are based on factors such as your location and your online profile. Lastly, the internet is a commercial space and adverts are often hidden as Instagram posts or blog articles. An aspect of internet literacy is the ability to identify what is an advert or not.

What is internet media literacy? And what is social media literacy?

Media literacy is the process by which we identify what media is in the digital age. TV shows, text messages, social media, advertising, video games and online video are all considered media. The second component of media literacy is to identify the messages that the media is sending out. All media was created by someone and for a reason. And now, with today’s digital technology, anyone can be a media creator.

Social media literacy is looking specifically at platforms such as Facebook or Twitter and learning how to critically analyse the content published here from a technical, cognitive, and emotional angle. The technical aspects centre on being aware of how the platform works – who can post what content, how it can be interacted with, and the underlying algorithms that present certain users’ content to you. Cognitively, you need to be able to identify what a reliable source on social media is by looking at, for example, the user’s bio, the number of followers, date when they joined and offline affiliations. Lastly, social media literacy is also about being aware of your emotions and how you react to specific content and interactions.

Internet literacy is the ability to use devices to access content online and to know how to analyse that content

What skills are developed from internet or social media literacy?

The ability to critically think about social media posts and online news stories makes you an educated consumer of these products. Ideally these skills should be part of a 21st Century education. Likewise, the understanding that media is constructed from a particular point of view is an important skill. As an extension of this, the ability to identify the role these media play in our politics and society allows you to see the values embedded in these media and who benefits from pushing these values.

What are the benefits of internet or social media literacy?

If you are social media literate, you should critically think about the media you consume and verify sources online. Tied to this is the responsible sharing of media online and thinking through the consequences of how certain media can affect our society. This then allows you to become an accountable creator of media messages.

Some questions to ask yourself when analysing social media posts

5 questions to ask yourself when analysing social media posts
5 questions to ask yourself when analysing social media posts

(adapted from Center for Media Literacy)

  1. Who made this post? There is always a creator of content online. In some cases, it is not the individual whose account is but rather an organisation or company. 
  2. Why has it attracted my attention? Is the creator using specific techniques? Are they working on my emotions or responding to my unconscious fears or biases?
  3. How am I interpreting the message in this post? Will other people understand it the same way? Or can different people see different messages in this content?
  4. What values are foregrounded in the post? What lifestyle is portrayed? What is not represented?
  5. Lastly, why was the post made? What is its purpose, and who is it serving?

If you ask these questions regularly about the social media you consume, you will begin to identify the ways post have been created and for what purposes. You’ll also question the reason behind the social media posts you make and share. A society that is internet literate is a society that works better with less chance of being swayed by populist arguments or emotions, which is a society I want to live in.