This is a stark example of why media literacy needs to be taught from the earliest ages – in and with digital media. [It’s also an example of why it’s hugely important to their kids that parents practice media literacy and not take what they see in social sites literally, but more on that in a minute.] This is a new imperative at the household and every other level.
The stark example is shared by social media researcher danah boyd in her post “Guilt by algorithmic association.” Reputations, even livelihoods, of completely innocent people can be seriously damaged if search engine users don’t apply critical thinking to what they see in search results. Danah gave the example of a 16-year-old Muslim in the US whose schoolmates somehow believe he might be a “terrorist” and google his name (danah gave him the fictional name of “Mohammad Abdullah”). “They keep typing in search queries like ‘is Mohammad Abdullah a terrorist?’ and ‘Mohammad Abdullah al Qaeda.’ Google’s search engine learns. All of a sudden, auto-complete starts suggesting terms like ‘Al Qaeda’ as the next term in relation to your name. You know that colleges are looking up your name and you’re afraid of the impression that they might get based on that auto-complete. You are already getting hostile comments in your hometown, a decidedly anti-Muslim environment.”
This is the new, reality-based Internet safety too, by the way: learning how to use digital media for personal, community, and global good. It applies to social media as well as searches. When people act reflexively or with uninformed prejudice against users or technology – whether with posts on their walls, discipline, or calls to authorities – they can do more harm than good. And when parents and educators understand that everything they see in social media has context in offline life and relationships which naturally they can’t completely understand because it’s not their context, they use social media wisely – as discussion points more than grounds for action – and that way model media literacy for their children.