16 April 2021

The power of critical thinking in an online world

“Social media gives legions of imbeciles the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community [...] but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner”.

With these harsh words, Umberto Eco, one of the greatest Italian and world philosophers and writers, commented in 2015 on the global spread of social networks. These words had a strong resonance around the world and there was also no shortage of different criticisms towards the writer’s intervention who was accused of spreading an elitist and anti-democratic thought.

Eco's words, however, should be analyzed more deeply. Not all those who write on the Internet are "imbeciles" but it is clear that the way in which many of us relate to the online world involves serious problems and dangers.

There are many behaviors that have worsened the online experience. Hate speech, cyberbullying and fake news are among the most prominent issues. Each of these things, however, has a very specific origin: the absence of critical thinking. Critical thinking corresponds to the faculty of evaluating, weighing information according to our criteria. It allows us to establish validity, relevance and importance.

The main problem is precisely related to fake news and the difficulty of distinguishing the truth from what is false. It is quite clear that the problems that people are facing are difficult to solve. Everyone is busy looking for ways through which they can identify fake news. It's not at all obvious what makes something clearly true or overtly false, or what makes someone trustworthy or not. There are honest, trustworthy people and media who make mistakes, just as there are dishonest people who tell the truth. Fake news exploits real beliefs. Real news can be presented in a manipulative way to tell a story inaccurately. All media outlets give their point of view.

Furthermore, there is also the problem of the algorithms implemented by those who run the internet and social networks. The information found on the internet confirms our opinions and biases: when we search for a word on the internet, the algorithm activates a series of parameters based on the information it has previously collected about us. In this way, the first sites to appear in the list are those that we visit most often or that contain information we usually consult. An important amount of material remains outside of the search. The algorithm avoids putting us in contact with information and ideas that conflict with our own, giving us a limited idea of the reality around us, reducing our ability to think critically.

The absence of critical thinking can generate the waves of hate speech and cyber bullying that flood our little virtual world. Without critical thinking, many users believe that what they write and comment has no impact in the real world, in the fragility of people and in the democratic resilience of institutions. 

In this context GEYC has been working for years to promote the correct use of digital tools and to develop a responsible online citizenship. In particular since 2018 GEYC has collaborated with Google and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in the Young Digital Leaders (YDL), a European educational programme that aims to empower young people across Europe through digital citizenship, critical thinking and media literacy skills, beyond the classroom, so that they can grow up safe, responsible digital leaders. The programme also sought to upskill teachers and parents so they could more proactively support this process, with a better understanding of the challenges faced online. 

The latest report produced by ISD, “Young Digital Leaders 2019: From Safety to Citizenship Online” presents encouraging results from the phase 2 of the programme which was based on several workshops:

  • 94% of students felt the workshop taught new knowledge and skills;

  • 77% of students felt they would behave differently online having learned how to be more positive online through the workshop sessions;

  • 18% increase in students’ feeling they would watch their language to avoid being hurtful when disagreeing with others online;

  • 68% increase in students’ knowledge of how to flag hate speech, and a comparable gain in their knowledge of how to give and receive consent online;

  • 99% of the teachers would like schools to receive more training on how to teach digital citizenship;

  • 98% of the teachers thought the YDL programme is helpful for those who want to teach digital citizenship.

One of the last events organized by ISD in the YDL framework was the Be Internet Citizens online training, designed to teach teenagers about media literacy, critical thinking and digital citizenship, with the aim of encouraging young people to have a positive voice online.

These data and the high participation in YDL programs make clear the need for an educational movement that pushes teachers, families, and students to be more aware of the behaviors that take place in the virtual world. The demand for skills and critical thinking exists and must be intercepted through both formal and informal education. Indeed, it is essential to remember that critical thinking is not something that can be simply imposed or taught. Critical thinking must be trained daily. It is a tool that must be applied all the time, not only when we have a teacher who tells us to criticize and compare two news. Mixing non-formal education with classical education is the best tool to make users more active, responsible and develop a digital civic consciousness 


The best way in which critical thinking can be taught to communities is to provide an environment in which all ideas are always exposed to critical reflection. If every idea is open to criticism, then maybe most of us will begin to believe that critical reflection of all ideas is normal. 

Currently in social media this is not the case. Both users and official media have built a virtual world in which all ideas are deemed "true" without challenging them in any way. In many cases the act of reading on the internet is passive and the most viral criticisms are done violently, with hate speech that reinforces our beliefs.

Spreading the culture of critical thinking is complex but essential. It is difficult because it is not something that can only be taught with the traditional tools of formal education. It is essential to have a better, healthy and respectful online and real world. Not only simple users, but also journalists and politicians need to change and improve their online approach. The internet and social networks are neutral and valuable tools. It's up to all of us to work to make them better places to be.