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Global Knowledge Network On Voter Education - learning from each other

Voters as Mindful Consumers in the Digital Age
Innovations in technology and access to information continue to transform the way people, especially youth, engage with or disengage from their democracies across the globe.

One such shift relates to the direction and flow of that engagement. This change has been brought about by the unprecedented and growing ability of internal and external political and electoral stakeholders to overtly and covertly influence electoral participation through tailored and targeted social media outreach.

Traditional media such as television and radio have been and continue to be potent influencing tools for engaging electorates. However, society is progressing toward a future where, figuratively speaking, the television channel chooses you, rather than the other way around.

The growing ubiquity of smart phones, coupled with social media's ever-expanding datasets and fine-tuned algorithms about our behaviors and preferences, equates to a new reality wherein these powerful tools can be employed to influence voter engagement on a level that far surpasses anything that has been seen by our civilization to date.

Societies that have traditionally categorized their electorates as passive, disengaged, or distrustful of politics, now, face an added challenge in that the competition for the attention of an electorate through social media and new technologies is today fiercer and more efficient than ever before.

While social media and new technologies can and should be used as tools that support informed voter engagement, we must remind ourselves that they are only tools; tools that can be used for good and for bad.

As technologies continue to evolve, nations must carefully consider what skills, values, and knowledge their electorates should have to be able to responsibly use these powerful tools, rather than being used by them.

This, then, raises a foundational question: where, when and how do we learn to be critical and mindful consumers of information? While there is no single answer to this question, it reminds us that mindful democratic citizens are "made" not "born," and today, more than ever before, citizens must be equipped to face the challenges of oversaturation and disinformation.

Responding to this growing challenge, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) works across the globe and in partnership with election management bodies, academia, media and civil society to strengthen the critical thinking and media literacy skills of youth. These areas of support represent key components of IFES' broader civic education programming, which is designed to strengthen the skills, values and knowledge that are key for mindful, democratic citizenship in the digital age.

In Ukraine, these efforts are supported by the United States Agency for International Development, Global Affairs Canada, and UK aid, and have translated into an innovative, semester-long, university level civic education course named, "Democracy: from Theory to Practice." The course, which will be piloted at eight Ukrainian universities in September 2018, was developed by Ukrainian and international experts, is tailored for Ukraine, and is based on IFES' global university-level civic education methodology: Strengthening Engagement through Education for Democracy (SEED). Through SEED, IFES, in 2011 introduced an innovative, university-level civic education course in Georgia that is currently offered at the majority of accredited universities in the country.

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IFES' research, conducted over a span of seven years in Georgia and other countries, demonstrates that individuals benefit significantly from participation in such civic education offerings. These benefits include, but are not limited to, the development of a range of skills associated with mindful, democratic citizenship, including: the ability to critically analyze information, to consider issues from multiple perspectives, and to make informed decisions.

As noted by American philosopher and educator John Dewey, "democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife," and our ability to critically analyze and process the ever-growing onslaught of (dis)information will without doubt continue to strongly influence the health of our modern democracies.

Through its civic education programming, IFES works worldwide to ensure that the next generation of leaders, and today's voters, are equipped to effectively manage the new age of (dis)information, and thus, to contribute to their nations' democratic progress and prosperity.

 George 'Gio' Kobakhidze
Senior Operations and Civic Education Officer
International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Ukraine