Why digital, media, and information literacy is inextricable in narrowing the digital divide in ASEAN 

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

When we think about addressing the digital divide, we often think about improving infrastructure to address the ‘availability gap’ for those who are yet to be connected to the internet. While this is indeed of utmost importance to address the first level of the digital divide, we need to also address the ‘adoption gap’ that concerns the readiness of users to use digital tools. This not only involves readiness in hard tech skills such as basic computer usage, but also in soft skills such as civil online behaviour and critical thinking. 

Harnessing the benefits of technology requires us to know not only how to utilise it productively but also to be critical in absorbing and filtering the information we come across, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Research conducted in 2016 found that many of Indonesia’s 132.7 million internet users fail to critically analyse the veracity of online contents. What does this mean? When a lot of people believe in misleading claims and false information—say, hoax and fake news—and they circulate it to others, this may cause mass disinformation that could be detrimental to society and can aggravate division in society. This is concerning given false news spreads faster than truth.

ASEAN, with 463 million internet users—and counting—should actively address this issue as its citizens spend more time in virtual spaces than ever before. The region is already inundated with massive amounts of rumours,  misinformation, and disinformation collectively dubbed the ‘infodemic’. This is especially the case in member states with particularly high internet usage, such as the Philippines or Indonesia. 

Not only is the ASEAN region very diverse in terms of digital infrastructure and technological application, it is also quite diverse  when it comes to the way its people engage in the online world. We have Singapore, which, according to Microsoft’s Digital Civility Index (DCI) report is the world’s fourth most polite country online; and Indonesia, who scored the lowest in the same report in Asia Pacific due to the rise in hate speech, cyberbullying, micro-aggression, and doxing. ASEAN member states that score higher in this regard and have demonstrated a more robust digital literacy framework are well-equipped to share its best practices in enhancing digital, media and information literacy and improving inclusiveness online to foster well-behaved and well-informed citizens.

Fortunately, progress is already underway in ASEAN to address this. In 2018, the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Information (AMRI) adopted the Framework and Joint Declaration to Minimise the Harmful Effects of Fake News and launched the Core Values on Digital Literacy for ASEAN aiming to promote greater cybersecurity to counter online falsehoods. In October 2021, the 16th ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting on Education and Development (SOMED) was held with a view to develop a Training-of-Trainers (ToT) program for educators to counter disinformation and promote media literacy for the region’s youth. 

The aforementioned initiatives illustrate that ASEAN is heading in the right direction. In addition to these initiatives, ASEAN should also formulate a regional action plan on digital literacy. With ASEAN aiming for a digitally inclusive society by 2025 and its population rapidly gaining internet connection each year, the region is ripe for a holistic and dedicated digital literacy framework. 

Having a regional digital literacy framework and action plan will enable ASEAN member states with varying levels of economic development, digital preparedness, and technological capacity to harmonise their national digital literacy policies. This should be at the forefront of ASEAN’s policy agenda, given a lack of coordination at the regional level would severely jeopardise ASEAN’s progress in bridging the digital divide and lead to uneven progress across the region.

This article was written by Adila Nurul Ilma, edited by Lauren Twine, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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