DEAR DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP, WE SHOULD TALK

Jan 2021

There was a time when the internet was considered a powerful tool to get people together, overcoming distances and different conditions, to finally allow all humankind to use the same platform to share, discuss, confront, learn. Now at a first glimpse, one would say it is quite the opposite. So how are the digital environments affecting communities, and citizenship in its wider meaning: sharing a space and maybe common aims or purposes?

Citizenship and digital environments?

We are deeply convinced that we need to talk about citizenship in digital environments too, starting from the basic concept of our democracy: the deliberative process. It means that opinions and decisions are to be taken together, through peer discussions, where opinions can shift and ideas can contaminate each other. But now, as a side effect of platforms’ algorithms of content selection, we spend most of our time in what Eli Pariser first described as filter bubbles: while online, platforms and algorithms are most likely putting us in connection with content (so: ideas, opinions, values etc) that is closer to our favorite one.

So from one side, as youth workers, educators, teachers etc. we should wonder what is happening outside our bubble, to the rest of us: how comes that so many people developed anti-scientific beliefs, or that they trusted (and still trust…) impossible promises coming from unpresentable politicians, or openly praise extremist and violent positions, express racism, attend riots and so on? It would be important to understand what is happening outside our filter bubbles and how what we believe to be impossible-to-believe theories, are instead gaining consensus, and sometimes they even make it to become majorities of voters in elections or referendum. Carole Cadwalladr wrote pages and pages about the Brexit as a possible outcome of these processes on The Guardian2, a few years ago already."

Different opinions about how to deal with our issues are good, but instead online, if we go beyond our bubble, we are more and more facing toxic narratives which are undermining the quality of our democracy, with poisoning our common ground: the rules of our game, the values we share, the fact of being part of the same human family - in a word, what we define as citizenship. 

These narratives are often shared in other bubbles, closed circuits, online communities which are quite allergic to fact checking or even confrontation and discussions based on data and proofs. Forums, online communities, social media groups are usually almost untouched by any form of youth work or educational contact, sometimes as a result of a conscious will by the organizers of these communities, of keeping different sources and ideas out of reach from members."

Online communities like Reddit can organize and show all the weak spots of nowadays financial market3, probably not exactly as an action to fight capitalism, but more obscure and complicated communities, like 4chan and all the following versions of this anonymous forum continuously being shut up by authorities, are a perfect place for everybody willing to test the appeal of any toxic narrative, fake news campaign, etc for a selected audience of mostly white “average guys”, who feel scared or menaced by the great changes that we are all facing so fast nowadays.

So we need to learn about the tools and languages used in these communities - starting from memes4 - and to focus on which values we want to really promote with our own narratives: this is how nowadays youth work could mantain a political value, and how it should question itself about values.

So how could youth work face this challenge, and how and with which tools could youth workers become able to keep a role in this situation? 

We tried to tackle these issues during the week from Dec. 14th to 19th, when with my colleagues Jan Lai and Carmine Rodi we hosted the training course Citizenship Reloaded on behalf of Italian National Agency for Erasmus + / Youth in Action. Citizenship Reloaded indeed was developed having in mind all the aforementioned aspects:how much online environments, (toxic) digital communities and behaviors, online hate speeches etc, would affect our citizenship, after learning that there is quite a chance that key events, like some elections or votes (as the Brexit one), could have been affected and somehow manipulated by digital communications. So it could be a good example of how non formal education could find a voice to talk about these topics without renouncing the core values of its approach. For this reason it could be useful to share some insights about how it worked and how we designed it.

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