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Tumblr is rolling out an internet literacy initiative to help combat misinformation and cyberbullying

Learning from 2016 issues ahead of the 2020 election

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With the 2020 election coming up and growing concerns about bad actors using social media sites to spread misinformation, Tumblr is launching an internet literacy campaign to help young users spot suspicious activity.

The initiative, World Wide What, was developed in partnership with a nonprofit internet literacy organization based in the United Kingdom called Ditch the Label. The campaign consists of six informational videos that walk Tumbr’s community through topics like fake news and authenticity, along with other issues the platform encounters, like cyberbullying. Unlike traditional literacy videos, which Tumblr executives told The Verge are targeted at parents and teachers, these will use language and imagery native to Tumblr; that means GIFs, short texts, and tons of memes.

Internet literacy campaigns may induce eye-rolls for avid Tumblr users who have grown up on the internet, but Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio said the company “didn’t do this to be paternalistic.” The company simply “wanted to offer people more insights into how to handle these situations.”

“We looked at this with an eye toward the Tumblr audience and how we should present this and how it’s culturally relevant to them,” Victoria McCullough, Tumblr’s director of social impact and public policy, told The Verge. “Doing it in GIFs, in a way that some other platforms have done similar things, will seem more educational. It’s more relevant to our audience.”

Both McCullough and D’Onofrio have wanted to roll out an initiative like World Wide What for some time, but they see 2020 as a perfect time to do so. In March 2018, Tumblr reported that Russian trolls spread misinformation on the platform in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Tumblr was far from the only social media site to run into problems. Facebook and Twitter also saw their platforms used by trolls and bad actors to purposely spread misinformation in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Tumblr responded to the incidents by issuing a detailed public blog showcasing what the accounts looked like, how they operated, and what they affected.

Now, the new initiative will help Tumblr users learn about misinformation without having to leave the site. “The way in which those folks spread that kind of content can be pretty difficult to detect,” D’Onofrio said. Having videos that break down what these posts look like specifically on Tumblr will help people develop “some skepticism around what they’re seeing.”

It can get difficult on Tumblr. The site is defined by its satirical memes, many of which are political in nature. Trying to determine what’s an authentic “shitpost” from a regular Tumblr user and what’s purposeful misinformation designed to spread on the site is something the executive team has grappled with in the past.

“One of the fears that we have is removing real posts,” McCullough said. “We have to be careful so that users feel protected, and help them learn to apply a little bit of skepticism. There are some things that are satire that are meant to poke fun that we don’t remove, but we also have to be super vigilant.”

The campaign is also working on educating Tumblr’s audience about other issues, like cyberbullying. Tumblr is often described as a toxic space. Flame wars within fandoms and harassment is a common activity on Tumblr. McCullough and D’Onofrio know this, and it’s something they’re trying to combat. The difficulty, D’Onofrio said, is trying to find the line between toxic behavior that branches into abusive, prohibited behavior and what doesn’t. It’s the same issue that sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have faced. YouTube recently updated its harassment policies to include behavior that up until late 2019 was acceptable.

“We’re not immune to some of that behavior and we recognize that,” D’Onofrio said, adding that while the behavior doesn’t seem to have grown over time, they’re not happy it exists on the platform. “There’s a lot that goes on that we do see. When it gets very heated, and it gets reported, we have to remove it.”

All six videos in the World Wide What series are available to watch now on Tumblr. Experts in specific fields that pertain to digital literacy, misinformation, and cyberbullying will host Q&A sessions in the coming weeks and months, too.