TBILISI, Georgia – A lifetime ago, when Maia Mikashavidze was a young girl and this country was ensnared in the Soviet web, she wore the red kerchief of the Young Pioneers, recited odes to communism and watched gray-faced announcers on gray television screens intoning centrally-approved news she remembers as equally gray.
Today there are no Young Pioneers in Georgia, and young people there move around the internet with the same dazzling fluency as other teens around the world, speeding from social media to news sites on their phones, laptops and tablets. And yet, says Mikashavidze, now one of her country’s most prominent journalism professors, her nation’s teenagers are as little prepared to evaluate the accuracy and trustworthiness of the news as she was when it came at her.
“The information and disinformation is coming at our young people with such force, from all directions, and we don’t have a tradition of strong journalism here,” said Mikashavidze, Professor of Media and Mass Communication at the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. “And when we did start to create this tradition in the post-Soviet era, the focus was on educating journalists and media managers. We somehow neglected to educate our audiences. As a result the vulnerability to propaganda is very high.”
That vulnerability is what led Internews to launch media literacy camps for teenagers this summer in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, three nations where parents remember a world where truth was commanded from on high, but where youth today navigate a new universe of endless – and questionable – information.
The manipulation of opinion, politics, policy and culture online is a worldwide phenomenon, as imminent a threat in the United States as anywhere else. Last year 82% of middle-schoolers in the United States couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website, according to a 2016 Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college. And as evidence has emerged that a highly coordinated disinformation campaign linked to the Russian government spread fake news and advertisements to more than 10 million Facebook users during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, Facebook and Google are taking steps to prevent sites that disseminate fake news from using their advertising platforms. But that won’t get rid of false or biased information online, which comes from many sources, including deceptive advertising, satirical websites and misleading partisan posts and articles.
“Unfortunately it is already a worldwide problem, not Moldovan or Asian or Russian, because it is a general tendency that there are forces that want to manipulate,” said Sorina Stefarta, a journalism professor in Moldova’s Chisinau School of Advanced Journalism who led one of the literacy camps. “That is why the media literacy issue has become a problem for every country that wants to preserve information security for its citizens.”
In the former Soviet sphere, the problems are particularly acute. The Republic of Georgia, for example, bordered by mountains and sea, is shadowed still by the heavy hand of the Russian government, which has a stake in the ethnic and territorial conflicts which have riven Georgia’s populous over the past thirty years. So too in Moldova and Ukraine, where television news is still dominated by pro-government management and popular Internet outlets are heavily populated by trolls and pocked with illegitimate information.
With such powerful forces in play, summer camp may not seem much of an anecdote. But sometimes anecdotes start small. In teaching ambitious, talented young people how to recognize falsehoods and manipulation online, as well as the basics of producing worthy news themselves, the camps are already having far-reaching impact.
In Georgia, camp organizers included ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijani students in the camp, ensuring that the two minority communities, whose politics are often odds, would have the opportunity to work together – and form lasting friendships. In five days at a seaside resort, the young people, selected in a highly competitive process, produced blog posts, artistic videos and news report. They designed web pages, logos and documentaries. And they learned, many for the first time, the dangers of using information from sources such as Wikipedia without checking facts on their own.
In Ukraine, the camp in a small Carpathian Mountain village turned into its own story when power went out. The 30 students launched an investigation of problems with the electrical grid, and looked into whether the hotel met the standards of the eco-hotel it claimed to be.
And in Moldova, 31 students participated in a six-day camp in the town of Costești, but they produced a half dozen news videos, and brought what they learned back to dozens of schools across the country. Their vibrant Facebook posts show them teaching their fellow students the principles of good journalism through songs, flash mobs and video presentations. Some of the country’s most prominent journalists, documentary filmmakers and media professors taught at the camp, and, like their counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine, they remain in active contact with the students who attended.
“We are not all going to be journalists, but we all listen to the news, we all read,” said Moldovan student Livia Covaliov, 14. “From this camp I really learned to think critically and to analyze all the news I am getting.”
Covaliov said she learned about the camp from a teacher at her school, but never realized when she applied to participate that she would be exposed to prominent media figures and bloggers in Moldova or that she would spend hours learning how to determine if a photo, video or post is legitimate by tracking primary sources and cross checking facts.
“After all the analysis that we did on the news, we realized that there isn’t always so much truthfulness in everything that you see on the Internet and on TV,” Covaliov said. “I think that is very important because we don’t want to let people manipulate us. That way we think for ourselves, we don’t let anyone else think for us.”
In each of the camps, competition was fierce among young people to participate. And the potential for them to play leadership roles in their communities is vast, regardless of whether they become journalists over the long term.
“I think that we need more trainings like that.” said Tiko Nachkebia, a Georgian radio journalist who was one of the trainers at the camp held in the Black Sea resort of Chakvi. “Maybe one third or one fourth of these kids will decide to become journalists, but even those who become economists or whatever, they need to be informed, they need to have an understanding of how to be a clever consumer. If yellow media can’t get consumers and viewers, it won’t exist anymore, I hope this can make a change. I hope, I don’t know.”
Marina Cobileanschi, a 13-year-old from Cimislia, Moldova, said she was particularly struck when trainers at camp showed participants a series of what appeared to be news posts from this summer reporting that schools in Moldova would start on October 1 this year. School began, as usual, in September.
“It is so hard sometimes to know what is real, but we have to help people figure it out,” Cobileanschi wrote in an email.
Since returning from camp, Cobileanschi said she and other participants have brought what they learned back to their schools and their social circles. On a daily basis, she said, she finds herself teaching her friends about online trolls and the like.
By spreading the word, “we will save our society from fake news,” she said.
Mikashavidze said that is just the point.
“We are basically forming a small group of young influencers, which we believe will have a multiplier effect,” Mikashavidze said. “Now these young people are quite firmly plugged into the principles of journalism, and I am quite positive that they will not be easy to lie to. They have camera and internet skills and they will earn respect from their families and their friends. When you invite children to an exclusive camp like that, then you make them into natural influencers in their communities. They will be listened to.”