Families in the Digital Age

families IREX Middle East
Photo courtesy of IREX

by Erin CooperSheila ScottJanella Ferguson, and Francesca Ciriaci-Sawalha

Women’s potential in the fight against online violence and extremism has long been emphasized by researchers and decision-makers worldwide. In the Middle East, the role that women—not only as mothers and family members but also as influencers in their communities—can play in helping young people recognize and resist hate speech and disinformation campaigns is all the more significant. While research has shown that in some cases mothers do, wittingly or unwittingly, contribute to radicalized ideas or behaviors in their children, there is also evidence that both boys and girls confide far more in their mothers than in anyone else when it comes to personal, social, religious, and family issues. By leveraging their unique position as confidantes and influencers in families and communities, women and mothers could become important agents of change and key players in the fight against online violence and hate speech. 

Empowered with critical thinking, digital literacy, and critical information engagement skills, they could open, inside and outside the home, all-important conversations about toxic narratives and hate speech that young people are exposed to or deliberately targeted by, about how they are processing such content both cognitively and emotionally, and whether they are engaging with online information safely and responsibly. 

It is precisely to enable such conversations between women and mothers and youth in families and communities that the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) launched the Families in the Digital Age (FADA) program in Jordan, with the support of the government of Canada and in partnership with 10 community-based organizations (CBOs) in rural areas across the country. 

Through a community-driven, family-centered approach, IREX designed and implemented a training program consisting of three modules in Digital Literacy, Critical Information Engagement, and Community Dialogue. IREX trained 34 women leaders from partner CBOs to deliver the training in their communities, in flexible formats ranging from formal sessions in community centers to shorter “kitchen meetings” in private homes, to accommodate women’s schedules and local contexts. The training program was based on IREX’s Learn to Discern (L2D) approach, meant to help participants develop critical thinking and critical information engagement skills that build resilience to online violence, toxic and divisive narratives, and disinformation campaigns. Piloted in six countries, including the United States and Jordan, L2D is a practical and user-experience-based approach to media and information literacy, focused on critical thinking, behavior change, and agency. The training was designed to instill healthier media habits and more responsible online behavior, and to encourage users to take transformative action for positive change in their community. Following the digital literacy, L2D, and community dialogue trainings, women and youth participants designed and implemented, in partnership with local institutions, online and offline community initiatives.

IREX project

Throughout the project’s 18-month life span, FADA trainers trained 1,884 women, including 149 schoolteachers who adapted the L2D curriculum into their classrooms. 

An online assessment conducted after the trainings showed that on average, FADA participants scored significantly higher than the control group across three critical areas: ability to analyze false or manipulative information, sense of control over how they are impacted by information and determination to seek alternative sources (locus of control), and general knowledge of the information and media sector. FADA participants, relative to the control group, demonstrated 44 percent better ability to identify and analyze false or manipulative information, 14 percent greater sense of control of how they respond to information they consume, and 78 percent more knowledge about the news media industry.

Imparting critical thinking and media literacy skills is significantly related to increased ability of citizens to detect false or manipulative information, including among populations at higher risk of recruitment attempts by violent extremists. Those interested in preventing violent extremism (PVE) should consider expanding these kinds of efforts to other high-risk geographies and integrating critical thinking/media literacy skills training into a variety of institutions—including libraries, schools, youth centers, and other community hubs—to scale these initiatives and reach more people.

Traditional approaches are insufficient to address 21st century security issues, particularly within the digital landscape. Intersectional projects, like IREX’s Families in the Digital Age, show how the Women, Peace and Security agenda can be used to address the need for more holistic, gendered perspectives in the security space. Women’s added value comes not only from a natural right to sit at the decision-making table. As IREX’s project shows, it stems from an ability to improve outcomes and impact their families, communities, and society when they are included.

Erin Cooper, Sheila Scott, Janella Ferguson