Cyber literacy crucial to averting online threats

Cyber literacy crucial to averting online threats

KUALA LUMPUR: The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of making digital literacy learning inclusive so that no one is left behind.

If previously online activities were limited to making financial transactions, buying and selling goods and services and forging social connections, these days the virtual sphere has expanded to fit in people working from home and students subjected to home-based teaching and learning.

And, while teenagers and youths have long been familiar with terms such as Google, YouTube, Zoom and Google Meet, now older adults and children as young as five have no choice but to “digest” these Internet features and applications to enable them to keep up with the times.

Senior lecturer at Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Centre for Multimedia Technology Studies Dr Mohd Khairie Ahmad said the current state of affairs demanded society to not only be literate (be able to read and write) but also possess cyber literacy skills.

Cyber or digital literacy means having the knowledge and skills to use computer technologies effectively, as well as understanding the importance of knowing where to find accurate and reliable resources in cyberspace.

“Based on several studies carried out locally, the level of usage of Internet devices and applications in our society is good. However, the question that arises here is how skilled they are at handling it,” Mohd Khairie, who also heads the university’s Advanced Communication Research Unit, told Bernama.

According to the website, Malaysia’s Internet penetration rate as of January 2020 was 83 percent. Malaysia had 26.69 million Internet users as of January 2020, with the number of Internet users increasing by 919,000 (3.6 percent) between 2019 and 2020.

He said while a majority of Malaysians have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, two studies he conducted, revolving around youths and their usage of the Internet, showed that this group was at risk due to, among other factors, not being adept at using the privacy settings provided by social media platforms.

His two studies, titled Information Ecosystem Assessment that was conducted last year and Information Ecosystem and Facebook Privacy Settings: Knowledge, Awareness and Information Disclosure carried out in 2018, also found that many Internet users used public Wi-Fi networks to conduct their banking and online shopping transactions.

“The use of public Wi-Fi to conduct such transactions can give rise to cyber security threats,” he said.

Mohd Khairie said the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) recommended digital literacy competence areas are information and data literacy; communication and collaboration; digital content creation; security; problem-solving; and career-related competencies.

“But neither Unesco nor even the United Nations has provided a concrete index with regard to cyber literacy and to date, the indicator often associated with the digital agenda is the percentage of the population using the Internet,” he said.

According to the website, 93.7 percent of Malaysia’s population is literate and, as such, Malaysia should focus on increasing awareness and understanding of cyber literacy among the people, he added.

The explosion of communication technology has led to information overload and this situation, according to Mohd Khairie, has resulted in people seeking information, rather than data or facts.

The worrying part is that many of them do not have or lack competence in determining authentic or valid sources of information.

“Most of the information (found online) is biased. This is because what we call information is actually a summary or combination of data interpreted in accordance with the presenter’s analysis. Data, on the other hand, refers to raw (original) figures or facts,” he said, adding that the World Economic Forum has stated that the digital universe had about 44 zettabytes of data in 2020 (each zettabyte is equivalent to one trillion gigabyte).

Citing a random example of a report stating that 5,000 out of 5,100 Covid-19 patients were in category one (asymptomatic), Mohd Khairie said the public may have different interpretations of the report’s content.

“Some people may interpret the Covid-19 situation as still dangerous while for some others, it is the opposite as they feel that since 5,000 of the patients have not been admitted to the ICU (intensive care unit), the Covid-19 situation is not that alarming,” he said.

He said a study he carried out last year together with the Centre for Independent Journalism and Internews on the information ecosystem revealed the existence of a deficit of trust among youths for information provided by not only the conventional media but also new media.

He said as long as the public is served information not supported by relevant data, or quotes data from dubious sources, then the risk of the public accessing inaccurate or fake information is high.

“The latest example is the vaccine issue which has not been exempted from being manipulated by certain quarters to the extent of causing misunderstandings among various parties.

“Therefore, the delivery and sharing of the relevant data have to be strengthened in order to channel accurate and authentic information to all levels of society,” he said.

Mohd Khairie also felt that there is room for improvement in the aspect of cyber literacy education.

“More attention must be paid to this aspect. This is because cybercrime is not the only threat that exists – there is also the issue of sociocultural relations due to the actions of irresponsible people whose social media postings are slanderous and incite hatred.

“This matter requires a system of cyber literacy awareness and education, starting from children right up to adults in order to turn them into smart and responsible Internet users,” he added.

Malaysian Cyber Consumer Association president Siraj Jalil, meanwhile, described cyber literacy as a bulwark that protects the safety and rights of Internet users, thus reducing the risk of threats faced by vulnerable groups such as children, teenagers, women and senior citizens.

These groups, he said, are at risk of being manipulated and used as content without their authorisation and deceived by scammers who target them via information they had shared through their social media accounts.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Internet User Survey 2020 showed that 47 percent of children aged between five and 17 used the Internet daily compared to 28.5 percent in 2018.

In view of the increase in the number of children using the Internet, Siraj said early exposure to cyber education should be considered while a learning module on cyber security should be developed and made compulsory for all students in schools and higher learning institutions.

“Cyberspace can be made safer through a clearer understanding of the use of cyber technology from an early age,” he said, adding that it will also lead to a reduction in the circulation of fake news, hacking and exploitation of technology, as well as cyber scamming activities.

Suggesting the development of a platform to enable cyber users to conduct a self-test to assess their ability to access, process, evaluate and analyse digital information, he said based on their scores, certificates can be issued to certify an individual’s level of cyber literacy.

Mohd Khairie, meanwhile, said the government should pay attention to the digital divide issue as the ongoing pandemic has revealed its impact on children’s education which has gone online following the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said a survey by the Ministry of Education in April 2020 found that 36.9 percent of students nationwide could not follow the online teaching and learning sessions as they had no access to smart devices. Apart from that, the Internet infrastructure was also unsatisfactory due to the digital divide.

“By forging smart collaborations with telecommunications players, the government can certainly implement efforts to bridge the digital divide and ensure the nation’s Internet access and network quality remain at the best level.

“The provision of a digital ecosystem that’s friendly to rural communities, the urban poor and people with disabilities is something that cannot be ignored because Internet access has become a necessity for many people now. These people cannot be denied of their right to a better future,” he added. –Bernama