Sri Lanka: Media literacy in the time of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the world even more dependent on the internet and social media for news, information, and some form of human contact. Unfortunately, that isolation also opened the floodgates to a catastrophic amount of misinformation, for which Sri Lankan citizens were ill-prepared. It was during this difficult time that the USAID-funded Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka (MEND) program piloted its media literacy program.
Designed to build resilience to all forms of information pollution, from bogus COVID-19 cures to ethnically- focused hate speech, MEND has drawn heavily on IREX’s Learn to Discern (L2D) curriculum, with its cascade training model of in-person workshops. That approach was short-circuited by the pandemic, and MEND was quick to adapt. Within weeks of the lockdown the program had converted the L2D curriculum into a series of webinars and had begun developing animated videos to debunk COVID-19 myths.
Webinars catch on
Initially, the webinars, which consisted of four two-hour sessions each, were a hard sell. By working with two local organizations, Hashtag Generation and the Rotaract Club of Sri Lanka, MEND organized seven webinar series in nine months, training a total of 256 citizens.
Gradually the format caught on. By the summer of 2021, MEND was having a difficult time accommodating all the Sri Lankan citizens who wanted a seat at the webinars. The number of sessions increased precipitously; in January 2022, MEND hosted eight complete webinar series (a total of 32 sessions). To date, MEND has trained over 1,000 Sri Lankans in the webinars, with hundreds more signing up every month. The team is planning Training of Trainers workshops in the near future to increase the numbers still further.
The MEND webinars are the first opportunity most Sri Lankans have had to gain the skills that can enable them to break out of the bubble of disinformation, hyperbole, and manipulation on social media.
“As young people, we regularly use social media, so media literacy is something that we really need to understand well,” said Madushika Gamage, a young university student from Matara District, in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. “This program gave us a lot of knowledge on how to think critically and verify the news stories we consume,” she added. “It gave us a better understanding of how media ownership influences the content shared on mainstream media. These webinars brought a lot of practical benefit to our lives.”
Increased demand for workshops
The public is already clamoring for in-person workshops, which will enable MEND to bring media literacy to a wider swath of the population. Participants, who skew heavily towards tech-savvy youth, repeatedly remark that they wish their parents could experience the L2D approach.
Along with the webinars, MEND also began producing animated videos that highlighted various aspects of media literacy, specifically targeting COVID-19 misinformation. One, in particular, resonated with the public: Bogus Covid 19 cures. Based on a real incident in Sri Lanka, where a self-proclaimed healer offered a magical elixir to “cure” COVID-19, it explained how to recognize and debunk such claims, using gentle humor and familiar tropes to make the point.
Over a period of 10 months, MEND produced nine videos, which garnered a total of 396,185 engagements. It expects to release an additional 14 over the next few months. Within the same time frame, MEND will launch its online course, MediaLit, which will be offered to educators and the general public.
MEND’s media literacy program has reached nearly every corner of the country, starting a long-overdue conversation on critical thinking and healthy media consumption. The demand for such training is growing, as are MEND’s plans to help improve citizens’ demand for, and access to, credible and reliable information.