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Want to Stop the Next Crisis? Teaching Cyber Citizenship Must Become a National Priority

6 minute read
Singer is Strategist for the New America Foundation and the author of multiple best-selling books on new security threats, such as LikeWar , Ghost Fleet and Burn-In.
McConnell is the former Director of National Intelligence and the NSA. He is currently the executive director of the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, created by the state to promote cybersecurity education, research, and public engagement.  

To be a responsible member of today’s increasingly digital society requires a new set of “cyber citizenship” skills. This goes far beyond the need to protect oneself from on-line scams or the theft of Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Such skills should go to the very heart of what it means to be a U.S. citizen.

The growing challenges of misinformation, deliberate disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false information have not only made the internet a more toxic place, but they have also fueled extremism, poisoned public health and threatened the very basis of our democracy.

The shameful events of January 6, 2021—when a seditious crowd in Washington, DC, driven in part by social media, tried to seize our nation’s seat of government—only underscores the problem.

How do we better equip the next generation of American citizens, so that they won’t suffer our generations’ fate?

Here is what the research shows. When the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently gathered 85 proposals made by 51 different organizations exploring what needed to be done to battle against the online forces of mis- and disinformation that contaminate and poison truth, by far the most frequently recommended policy action was to raise the digital literacy of those who consume that information.

Sometime also described as “media literacy” or “cyber citizenship,” digital literacy is about having the skills to succeed in an increasingly digital world. It is not just about being able to find information online (which is all too easy), but also to be able to analyze and evaluate it for everything from its sourcing to whether someone is trying to manipulate you or not. Or, as a RAND Corporation report on the value of such skills as an essential tool to battling misinformation or “truth decay” summed, it is about “teaching participants how to think without dictating what to think.”

And yet, the vast majority of the policy, media, and civil society have focused on remedies that do not involve this priority. Instead, we keep looking for silver bullets through rewriting the legal codes that govern social media or the software code they use to run their networks. Each approach is certainly worthy of attention.

But the hard reality is that, even if these remedies are fully implemented—unlikely given political and economic realities—they will still be insufficient. Simply put, each neglects the human element of both the attackers, who will adapt their tactics to mitigate such changes, and the targets, the audience whose beliefs and behavior the attackers seek to alter.

The good news is that a wide array of new digital literacy tools have emerged in just the past few years to aid everyone from K-12 students all the way up to the elderly who still want to learn in gaining such skills to handle the online world more effectively. They range from class curricula to entertaining online exercises. As a recent Harvard study explained in its assessment of one such tool (a Dutch educational video game), teaching such “pre-bunking” skills (as opposed to “debunking” fact checks after exposure to the falsehood) can create “significant and meaningful reductions” in the effectiveness of disinformation campaigns.

Think of such skills as a kind of vaccine. They don’t mean the end of the online threat, but they make individuals, and thus our society as a whole, much more resilient against it.

The bad news is that, while many other democracies like Estonia, Finland and Ukraine have built up their citizens’ ability to “learn to discern” online, such efforts are spotty in the U.S.

It is not just that our nation’s leaders and organizations haven’t focused sufficiently on the problem, however. Our challenge is magnified by the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a single national school system, but literally thousands of them across all the states, counties, and cities.

However, the disarray goes further. Even for those limited numbers of school systems that have launched such programs, the tools that are used to teach digital literacy are too often not validated for their effectiveness. Nor are they gathered together for easy access, nor matched to need or grade level. Some educators have been reduced to literally googling for teaching tools that can aid their efforts to protect their students.

To rectify this urgent need, our two organizations recently launched a novel partnership in Florida to help young people learn how to be responsible ‘cyber citizens’ as they participate in our increasingly digital society. Among other things, we are building a ‘collaborative community’ of national experts in fields ranging from national and cyber security to pedagogy and education policy, along with ‘front line’ educators who are passionate about this topic. Those experts will then help identify and disseminate the best ‘cyber citizenship’ educational tools and strategies and disseminate them to other educators, thus giving them easy access to the best lesson plans, classroom exercises, and other learning materials.

Yet this effort is only the start. We need a sustained national effort if we are to prepare our citizens, both young and otherwise, for ‘life on-line’ in today’s socially engineered world.

Part of the reason for this predicament is that we too often look at online threats through a partisan lens. Yet, those growing up today will have a need for cyber citizenship skills long after the current political debates are past and will need these skills for any topic, not just political ones. Regardless of party, leaders of all U.S. states share a common interest in aiding our youth (and the parents and teachers who care about them).

One of the key tasks of the incoming Biden team will be to convene an array of needed actions to push back against extremism and malign online threats. A crucial part of that is recognizing how domestic and national security policy are now wrapped together in new ways, and thus require more than just traditional legal, intelligence, or military responses. As a result, one positive and arguably bipartisan action item that would both aid teachers, parents and students, as well as build our national resilience against all kinds of future threats, should be for the Department of Education to lead and coordinate a new effort to provide ‘cyber citizenship’ programming in our schools. In turn, Congress should make it a priority to aid the state and local school systems (who are the ones that deliver education in our nation) in scaling such programs, by vetting and sharing best practices and tools, and supporting funds for local implementation.

It is our obligation to train and equip the next generation with the kind of skills that will allow them to avoid repeating the mistakes of our era. And who knows, maybe some of those skills just might rub off on their parents and grandparents too.

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