What we learned about building resilience to manipulative information from Learn to Discern

What we learned about building resilience to manipulative information from Learn to Discern

Katya Vogt


3 participants in training

IREX's Learn to Discern approach helps people of all ages develop healthy habits for engaging with information, online and offline. We’d like to share the lessons we’ve learned implementing Learn to Discern globally.

Online manipulation – hate speech, divisive narratives, and other forms of information disorder – is an urgent, poignant, and multi-faceted problem. Micro-targeting and algorithm-driven filter bubbles present narrow yet extremely populated streams of information. Unprecedented ability to tap into and activate our emotional reactions and biases, re-routes decision-making away from the critical and analytical thinking parts of the brain. Inflated importance of “likes” and addictive properties of digital devices and social media affects youth’s self-image, belief systems, and mental health. It also challenges how professional journalists present information to compete with social media platforms for advertising revenues and attention. The combined impact of online information engagement has been and is currently reshaping how we engage with the world and each other.

To build resilience to manipulative information, we need to recognize that helping humans navigate the new online space in ways that appeal to diverse learners is a matter of equity, human empowerment, development, and investing in the future.

The Learn to Discern approach

IREX first learned this in Ukraine, where we designed and piloted our first Learn to Discern program in 2015 – 2016 and iterated and deepened this knowledge as we took the approach to new settings and audiences. Learn to Discern is an approach that recognizes the roots of vulnerability to disinformation and hate speech in human “operational systems” and in the incentives baked into the social media infrastructure. It then equips those who consume information with critical thinking skills to navigate the polluted information space in a healthy, responsible, and empathy-driven way. 

Since its original impactful performance in Ukraine where it reached over 90,000 people in nine months, Learn to Discern has imparted a long-lasting ability to recognize disinformation among participants—a year and a half after trainings, participants continued to be 25 percent more likely to check multiple news sources and 13 percent more likely to discern between disinformation and a piece of objective reporting. It has since then been co-adapted with local partners and audiences to 18 countries around the globe, many of which are conflict fragile. Across these diverse geographies, contexts, and participant demographics, we continue to see positive impact.

Impressive as the evidence we observe is, we recognize that effective tools and approaches can and should be improved, especially if they are called to address one of the most dynamic and evolving challenges of our time. Researchers, academics, and practitioners alike increasingly recognize this. IREX, with our global portfolio and diverse audience has learned some important lessons.

Lesson 1: Competencies to resist manipulation and build resilience to disinformation are complex and go beyond one single discipline.

Learn to Discern goes beyond traditional media literacy and draws upon insights from cognitive reflection, emotional regulation, empathy-building, and other related fields. Media literacy as a field battles many pre-conceived notions among stakeholders, participants, and practitioners as neither “media” nor “literacy” are adequate descriptors of the kinds of skills and behavior change intervention needed to build resilience to the pull and influence of manipulative information. Media literacy educators must contend with and prepare to address digital addiction, stress response, emotional reaction, the need to belong, and other human psychosocial and cognitive processes to have lasting impact.

Lesson 2: Media literacy education should be available for everyone.

While everyone needs media literacy competencies and awareness, education on how to use the online space in a way that does not undermine democratic values and human rights (both our own and others’) is quickly becoming inequitable with inequal access to educators and resources based on location, local politics, resources, and parental engagement and awareness. Policies that mainstream media and information literacy education are needed to close the growing divides and focus on especially vulnerable populations targeted with conspiracy theories and propaganda.

Lesson 3: Media literacy education varies and impacts different groups differently.

Moreover, while everyone needs media literacy competencies, it is important to recognize that information engagement varies and has a different impact on different groups of individuals. Further the formats and methods used to build these skills are as important as the curriculum, which must tap into incentives for learning and into local systems and institutions that can change norms and achieve large-scale and sustainable skill-building for new generations. Both content and format need to be tailored and customized and focus on “Socratic method” when it comes to changing minds and behaviors.

Lesson 4: Building resilience to disinformation requires both short-term and long-term strategies.

To safeguard civic space and human rights we need to go beyond individual to community resilience and norms, we have also learned lessons about the need for both short-term strategies and long-term resilience building avenues. Decision-makers and policymakers of today and tomorrow need them to shape online spaces that are supportive for civic discourse and empathy-driven engagement. Short term strategies should also be focused on alleviating immediate harms and protecting the information space around critical moments, supporting decision-making processes, and managing tensions. Long term strategies involve whole-of-society efforts to depoliticize and plan for equipping all to become informed participants in the information space.

Lesson 5: Not only individuals, but governments and systems have biases and priorities that might oppose media literacy.

Scaling media literacy skill-building at the systems level is often constrained by the fact that not only individuals, but governments and systems have biases and priorities that might oppose media literacy for political and other reasons. Depoliticizing the conversation around these key skills while using more neutral approaches, could be a way forward.

Lesson 6: Quick steps can be taken to combat disinformation.

We have learned that while behavior change solutions requiring policy change are being contemplated and shaped, quick steps can be taken to replicate proven methods for raising awareness and decreasing engagement with misinformation, at least in the short term and drive demand for more robust programs and resources. Faster adaptation of research outcomes into practice can help advance this.

Lesson 7: Evaluation and standards are needed to ensure equitable access and quality.

Whenever this is done, and generally for the field of resilience-building work, evaluation and standards are needed to ensure equitable access and quality in strengthening these competencies and continuing to learn what works to strengthen resilience.

Lesson 8: Media literacy champions are abundant.

We found that regardless of the location and context, Learn to Discern programs always find their champions. Participants – from youth to educators – in settings as diverse as Jordan, Serbia, Tunisia, Estonia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Georgia report great of enthusiasm and empowerment both in how they personally engage with their social media and information space and each other giving us the final and, arguably, the most optimistic lesson of all - investing in human potential pays off.