What do the kids know?

Julia Gillard underestimates how young people critically engage with war on social media

Julia Gillard thinks young people shouldn’t trust their own eyes and ears. In an interview for former treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s documentary about antisemitism, broadcast on Sky News last night, Gillard said: “A lot of what is going on today is a distortion of history from social media… It’s a misunderstanding about the nature of the conflict. Particularly young people are developing views about this which are unbalanced and really not informed by the history in any way.”

According to the former prime minister, if only young people weren’t getting “wrong social media information” they’d support the atrocities we see Israel committing.

It’s the latest (and certainly not the last) example of Australian politicians trying to undercut how empowering and educational social media can be. For young people, yes, but really for all of us.

“It worries me that people get their understanding of history off social media, without ever touching any of the real facts,” Gillard told Frydenberg.

This line of thinking is wrong in at least two ways. First, the assumption that there is there is no factual reportage on social media at all. Yes, misinformation is a problem on the internet (and elsewhere) but the reason digital platforms can be so convincing is that they are also full of informative, very useful information. Academics, historians, scientists, teachers, doctors and people with lived experience in the most pressing topics of the day are on social media sharing what they know. Misinformation is a concern precisely because it’s shared next to credible information.

For what it’s worth, the 2023 Digital News Report showed that all generations are equally concerned about online misinformation. Another study of children aged 8 to 16 found 60 per cent feel they can identify fake news and actively take steps to vet information they are unsure of by talking to someone they trust, asking critical questions and looking for more sources. More could and should be done to teach media analysis to all Australians, but it’s silly to pretend young people are clueless about this.

Which brings us to the second fallacy in this anti-social media stance. Where would Gillard suggest young people turn to be appropriately informed about what is happening in Gaza and Occupied Palestine? Australian mainstream news outlets have a documented bias towards Israel and Israelis, dehumanising Palestinians through the use of language and selectivity in whose stories are covered. Some of the most egregious misinformation about the conflict has been spread by the established media.

Journalists are not allowed to Gaza, which leaves the job of first-hand reporting to Gazan journalists and citizen journalists. While some are working with foreign media outlets, many are uploading directly to the internet so we can see for ourselves.

Millennials are the currently most highly educated generation in the country, a title that Gen Z is on track to claim. Gillard’s assumption that we just don’t understand what we’re seeing is paternalistic and transparent.

She is not the only political figure eager to demonise social media as an information discovery tool, nor is the discussion limited to the growing support among young people for a liberated Palestine. Digital platforms have become a convenient scapegoat for problems political leaders can’t or don’t want to solve.

The push to ban social media for kids under 16 cites concerns about mental health. While young Australians are in a mental health epidemic, with almost 50 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 reporting psychological distress and higher loneliness scores than older generations, experts say that banning social media won’t improve this.

And when misinformation and conspiracy theories about the Westfield Bondi attack were spread online, Anthony Albanese was quick to call social media a ‘scourge’ but failed to acknowledge how mainstream media outlets amplified unverified information. Laws regulating misinformation and the tech giants are necessary, but any legislation must address the Australian media’s role in spreading misinformation too.

As is typical of political decision makers, Gillard has seriously underestimated how switched on Australian youth are. According to polling by YouGov, 85 per cent of Australians are concerned about the number of civilian casualties in Gaza; 61 per cent of young people aged 18 to 34 want the government to do more; and people under 35 are more likely to support recognising Palestine as an independent state (43 per cent vs 32 per cent).

It’s the result of youth being more educated, more critically engaged with the news, and having access to more freely flowing information on social media platforms – not less.

Crystal Andrews is a journalist and founder of Zee Feed.

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