In the wake of an international scandal over Facebook’s opaque data practices and allegations that interest groups and foreign nations have exploited the platform to influence elections, the social-media giant has decided to enter the digital literacy education space.
Facebook’s new Digital Literacy Library, which users can access without an account through the website’s Safety Center page, is aimed at helping young people learn to be critical consumers of digital information. It provides a progression of lessons in each of five major categories: reputation, identity exploration, positive behavior, security, and community engagement.
While some of the lessons cover how to set privacy settings on Facebook and other platforms, the material doesn’t address some of the most pressing controversies about privacy, data sharing, and misinformation that now surround the company—topics that experts say should be covered in digital literacy education.
Facebook didn’t create these lessons in-house. The library holds aggregated select resources from the Berkman Klein Center’s Digital Literacy Resource Platform, a collection of lessons and other educational materials developed in collaboration with educators, researchers, and students. “It was very important for us to work with an expert,” said Antigone Davis, the global head of safety at Facebook.
But Erin McNeill, the president of Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit advocacy group for media literacy education, argues that the creation of the library is “a PR move” by Facebook. A lot of companies “make a show of self-policing when they’re under a threat of regulation,” she said.
In recent months, Facebook has launched a public relations campaign to win back their users’ trust after it was revealed earlier this year that a third-party app had collected information from tens of millions of profiles and used it to target political advertisements. The company has also made changes to its platform with the intended goal of protecting user data and stopping the spread of “fake news.” But misinformation on the site doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon: Just this week, Facebook said it found pages built to interfere with the 2018 midterm elections.
Davis said that she knows users are looking for information about how to stay safe online, and she acknowledged that the library is just one part of a broader set of efforts to address Facebook’s responsibility to the people on its platform.
She highlighted new tools that Facebook released earlier this week that allow users to manage their time on the platform and limit notifications, as well as long-standing resources for teenagers, like the company’s Bullying Prevention Hub.
“I would see [the library] as one of the many levers that we are pulling to ensure that we are meeting families’ needs,” said Davis. “We shouldn’t take the digital literacy library in a vacuum.”
Experts Suggest a Critical Approach
Some aspects of the library—like the focus on identity exploration, and a lesson on “over-texting"—are innovative and will likely encourage students’ reflection, said Renee Hobbs, the director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. But for the most part, the topics on this list are very standard digital literacy fare, she said.
“I wondered why they didn’t address the topics that Facebook can address better than anybody else, that are the most urgent gaps and holes that are missing from most digital literacy materials,” she said.
What are algorithms? What are the advantages and disadvantages of targeted advertising? What can a platform learn about users if it’s tracking their movements on the Web? “These are topics that Facebook engineers and managers have real insight on,” said Hobbs.
The Berkman Klein Center’s platform does include resources that cover artificial intelligence, algorithms, and machine learning. The lessons and activities that Facebook chose to include as part of their library are “only a subset of the [100-plus] tools available,” said Sandra Cortesi, the director of the Youth and Media project at the center, in a statement to Education Week.
Facebook has previously offered advertisers access to teenagers who were feeling “worthless,” “insecure,” or “defeated,” as evaluated by the data that Facebook collected from tracking their activity. Although Facebook does put in place special privacy restrictions for minors, it can collect a lot of the same data from teenagers as it does from adults—including all of the content and communications that users upload, their “likes” and contacts, and location data.
Given this history, these digital literacy lessons should touch on the ethics and rationale behind the company’s business model, said McNeill of Media Literacy Now.
Facebook has the opportunity to educate students about the social and economic forces that drive social-networking sites, she said, and engage teenagers in questions like: “Why is this system here, and who’s paying for it? If I use this free thing, who’s actually profiting, and where does the money get made?”
“It’s fair and important that consumers of anything are critical,” said Davis of Facebook. “I don’t begrudge in any way people taking the time to be skeptical. ... If it were my child, I would do the same.”
But as a technology company, especially one with large reach, Facebook feels it has a responsibility to put out resources like these, she said. “Giving kids the skills they need to safely and responsibly enjoy online technology is really a multi-stakeholder effort,” she said. “I would encourage people to use this as one resource among many.”
McNeill encourages teachers to approach the resources with a critical eye. Educators can adopt parts that would work well in their classrooms, while still asking: Who made this and why, and what’s being left out?
“It’s media,” said McNeill. “We can use our media literacy skills to evaluate it.”
Photo: The Facebook logo at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. —Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.