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Commentary: Clueless over deep fakes and sock puppets? You'll need new skills against these cyber scourges

Developing digital literacy by itself may not be adequate to meet more recent challenges. To become savvy democratic citizens in these troubled times, young Singaporeans need to fortify their citizenship skills with emotional and epistemic literacies too.

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The youth of the world today have a lot with which to grapple: climate change denial, religious and nationalist radicalisation, anti-vaccine scepticism, and even war propaganda.

All these test our ability to sift through competing claims. Unfortunately, our information inputs are often incomplete, with some groups and individuals intentionally trying to misinform the public.

Fortunately, since 2012, young Singaporeans have been receiving Cyber Wellness (CW) education in primary and secondary schools.

They have been learning healthy internet practices as well as how to assess the factual reliability of digital sources of news and information in general.

However, today, we live in a world of deep fakes (ultra-realistic, video impersonations of real people created by state-of-the-art digital effects), sock puppets (automated software scripts pretending to be real people online), and isolated echo-chambers in the form of private WhatsApp, WeChat or Telegram groups.

What is at stake is not only whether as individuals we are misled into making poor personal choices, but also whether as a society we are misled into supporting the wrong public policies.

As such, developing digital literacy by itself may not be adequate to meet more recent challenges. To become savvy democratic citizens in these troubled times, young Singaporeans need to fortify their citizenship skills with other literacies.


One important literacy to add to our defences is emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is the ability to recognise, express and manage emotions, motivations and other mental processes in ourselves and to recognise and react appropriately to those of others.

The Ministry of Education has in fact already included some aspects of emotional literacy in the Character & Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum as part of its bid to improve socio-emotional learning (SEL) in schools.

Among other lessons, students learn how to “count to 10” before reacting to provocations and how to recognise their biases and prejudices in their responses to others.

Students are also trained how to use journaling as a healthy way to uncover and express their emotions.

These lessons are bound to improve the self-awareness of Singaporean students, leading to improvements in their collegiality at work and their ability to engage in civic interactions going into adulthood.

Emotional literacy techniques can also be specifically utilised to combat the dangers of sophisticated present day attempts at misinformation, radicalisation or plain swindling.

Just as students should take a deep breath and count to ten before reacting to challenging situations with their peers, they should do likewise when confronted with purported news or information that plays on their emotions.

For example, impersonation scams that pretend to be government agencies play on our common anxieties about dealing with and propensity to be obedient to authority figures.

If students are trained to take a step back, they will be more likely able to spot any telltale signs of misrepresentation and/or have the presence of mind to verify the source of authority before complying.

By learning and acknowledging what their biases and prejudices are, students will be better able to live in harmony with fellow Singaporeans of different races and religions.

This would also help them to resist attempts by radical groups such as religious or racial supremacist groups to appeal to their loyalties or play on their outrage at the ill-treatment of their co-religionists or co-ethnics.


In addition to the exploitation of emotions and mental blind spots, today, people are also having a difficult time assessing scientific and technical claims.

Things like climate denial, anti-vaccine scepticism or cryptocurrency scams do not only play on our emotions, they also play on the ordinary individual’s lack of epistemic foundations in relevant technical areas.

Epistemology is the study of what can be considered as knowledge. Improving one’s epistemic foundations, or learning epistemic literacies, is not about having complete knowledge of the facts of any particular subject.

It is about having enough foundational knowledge about how the world works in various areas.

This is so that even when you do not yet have all the facts, you will be able to make a reliable provisional judgement about the latest claims trending on social media.

Thus, Singaporean students need to be literate in the logics of different domains of knowledge, especially scientific and technical ones though sociological and other humanistic domains should not be neglected.

 Two very pertinent examples when it comes to scientific claims have been climate change denial and anti-vaccine scepticism.

It can be very confusing when one sees scientists and qualified doctors denying climate change and the safety of vaccines respectively.

Students need to learn that different branches of science have different standards and measures of certainty and much of what counts as scientific knowledge is often based on a near-consensus of active scientists.

So, it is not at all unusual to find one or two dissenting scientists or doctors who do not agree with the other 95 per cent of their colleagues. Their presence does not annul the scientific or public health policies based on mainstream science.

In the last few years, we have also witnessed several so-called “pump-and-dump” scams concerning cryptocurrency launches.

This is where fraudsters artificially increase temporary demand for their new cryptocurrencies by using social media hype, only to sell their holdings immediately and leave ordinary investors bearing the loss.

Students, of course, need to learn financial literacy, especially specific knowledge about what kinds of financial scams are prevalent in the investment world.

However, it would also be very useful for them to learn how money works as a basic feature of modern economies – how it holds value, how inflation dilutes that value, and how it is fundamentally different from other traded commodities.

This will help them not only assess the new era of cryptocurrency investment with more clarity, but also help them understand the wider world of economic policy.

Learning epistemic literacies will not make students domain experts, but they will learn how to better discern what could be true, what is more likely to have been made up and who wins and who loses.

They can use these new literacies to inform many important decisions in many different facets of life.

Also, as a society, a populace literate in multiple domains is a good foundation for deliberations in the democratic processes that determine our collective futures.

While the above lessons are very useful, there is no fool-proof way to catch dubious information or claims 100 per cent of the time.

Thus, it is always pertinent to ask yourself what happens if you are wrong in believing and acting on a particular story or message.


About the Author:

Johannis Aziz is a research fellow at the Office of Education Research at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.


Related topics

misinformation falsehoods online Social Media Covid-19

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