Digital citizenship is an emerging concept, somewhat ambiguous and linked to the rights and duties of citizens in the virtual world, in the knowledge society, on the Internet, and in social networks. Also known as cyber-citizenship or e-citizenship, it examines the digital competencies essential for safe and effective access to information available online, as well as for participating in virtual and face-to-face communities.
It is unquestionable the relevance of emerging digital citizenship to a proactive, truthful, and republican production of content, on the one hand, and a conscious and responsible consumption of content, especially those available on the Internet, on the other. In contrast, it is understood that a poorly informed society cannot be fully free or democratic.
Digital citizenship is directly related to other principles and values. From freedom of expression and communication (press and broadcasting of thought) to the defense of the public interest and the common good to certain fundamental dimensions of democracy such as inter-institutional accountability, the rule of law, freedom, competition, participation (deliberation), equality, and solidarity.
In analytical terms, digital citizenship would be located at the intersection between freedom of expression, public (political) communication, and democracy. And it is paramount in the framework of the information society and its ramifications, concerning inclusion (digital literacy), rights and duties of users in Internet environments, e-government, cyber activism, appropriate technological behavior, responsibility, and coexistence.
This has become particularly important in view of the emergence and popularization in the last two decades of virtual social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Telegram, which are used daily by a good part of Latin Americans.
Although the contributions of these social networks and the Internet to contemporary societies cannot and should not be ignored, the existence of irresponsible, intentional, and premeditated behavior by certain actors should not be ignored either. This involves a wide range of actions including manipulation, abuse of power, invasion of privacy, cybercrime, polarization, fundamentalism, persecution of online dissent, or mass dissemination of hate speech.
More recently, especially since the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, strategies of disinformation and/or dissemination of fraudulent or misleading news (fake news) gained even more relevance. And it is now understood that disinformation strategies result in processes of democratic erosion in numerous countries globally. This is further reinforced through the use of technological tools such as micro-focusing or content targeting, deep fake news, algorithm manipulation (Google), and astroturfing, among others.
Disinformation strategies generate spurious societal impacts, as they undermine social, institutional, and interpersonal trust. At the same time, such strategies generate uncertainty, incapacity of governability and disaffection, impoverish deliberation in the public space, and reinforce sectarian, biased, and radical positions – including hate speech, and discrimination. Besides, the digitization of all types of prejudices (gender, racial, intergenerational, geospatial) -, induces users to error, and deteriorates democratic and republican political culture.
Consequently, the extraordinary challenge posed by such disinformation strategies has been insistently denounced, both in consolidated democracies and in democracies in transition.
What can be done to control and reduce disinformation? It is known that disinformation, mainly in periods of electoral campaigns, is a strategy with quite old antecedents, and that it has been renewed along with the aforementioned popularization of social networks and the Internet. Once its deleterious effects on deliberation, public space, and the common good have been confirmed, many societies and governments have reacted to protect and strengthen their political regimes.
In operational terms, initiatives have been adopted, such as the promotion of digital citizenship, sectoral regulation, monitoring and verification of content, and even the repression and accountability of agents directly involved in the production and dissemination of fraudulent, distorted, and possibly criminal news.
Within the framework of this dual process of promoting digital citizenship and repression of disinformation, many actors could be called to assume responsibilities, especially in the case of producers, intermediaries, and distributors of misleading information. And in this framework, authorities, media associations, academia, civil society organizations, legislators, regulatory bodies, international organizations, educational systems, and audiences should be involved.
The adoption of measures against anti-democratic disinformation and subversion strategies cannot be understood as a return to prior censorship of the media. On the contrary, it is a growing effort to self-regulate and professionalize the communication system, to improve public opinion based on evidence, to recompose the tripartite relationship between the media, the political system (governments, opposition) and the citizenry, and to improve the current political regime.
In short, society will not be truly free, republican, or democratic if it does not have truthful, accurate, transparent, and well-founded information. The matter is even more urgent since, recently, many Latin American countries have been victims of massive, intentional, and premeditated disinformation campaigns, mainly during electoral periods.
These strategies of disinformation and subversion are promoted for the benefit of a few interested parties, but have negative repercussions on the relations between citizens, society, and the State as a whole. Therefore, the promotion of digital citizenship is emerging as the best remedy against the disinformation pandemic, as long as it is based on truthfulness (openness, decentralization, and neutrality), pluralism (universal access), diversity, tolerance of criticism, deliberative democracy (open government) and public interest.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva