Inspiring Social Change Through Young Digital Changemakers

FROM: Tanuja Thurairajah – 16. June 2022

Narratives and counter-narratives are evolving by the second in a fast-paced, digitally inter-connected world. The main protagonists of the global digital stage are youth. The Incubator Space for Promoting Information Rights and Freedom of Expression (InSPIRE) project in Sri Lanka, funded by the European Union, has been working with students and academics at four universities – University of Jaffna, University of Peradeniya, University of Sri Jayawardanapura and South-Eastern University – to offer trainings that foster creative, multidisciplinary learning and collaboration on multi-media products.

The project’s goal is to encourage undergraduates to build the thematic knowledge and practical skills that will enable them to create new media products that focus on gender-sensitive and socially responsible forms of communication. Digital media products, especially those shared over social media platforms, can become volatile, spreading misinformation and discriminative narratives. The need for digital media professionals to become literate in amplifying inclusive, fact-based content is timely, since all media is arguably becoming increasingly social.  

The InSPIRE project, which was launched in Sri Lanka two years ago, has made progress despite the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project began with consultations with each university on skills assessment and network building, including a virtual project orientation under the theme “I am a responsible media citizen,” along with a series of virtual competitions. The project particularly resonated with young women, who made up 84% of network members, many of whom were from the Muslim community of the eastern province.

The project created four modules covering these themes: freedom of expression, the right to information, digital citizenship and gender in new media. The modules were developed under the guidance of an Expert Review Committee consisting of academics in the field of media, communication and performing arts from the four universities. Pre- and post-test evaluations revealed that 489 journalism and media students from the universities had increased their knowledge on freedom of expression and information.

Campaigning for Equal Rights

In parallel social media campaigns, #InSPIRE and other outreach initiatives have reached around 5,000 people, including young social media users and the general public. To mark International Women’s Day, the InSPIRE project launched a 7-day campaign called #Choosetochallenge. The campaign celebrated and recognized the achievements of several young women who belonged to the network of media students.

The campaign identified obstacles that often hold women back, and joined the official International Women’s Day 2021 campaign theme “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.” #Choosetochallenge also featured the project team of the InSPIRE project, Helvetas, the Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum, young leaders, and media and communication students from the four universities. As part of the campaign, around 20 students representing the universities pledged to raise their voice against discrimination and harassment to safeguard the rights of women.

Creating Spaces to Learn and Grow

The construction process of three physical incubator spaces is underway, and 6 consultations have been held with university students and lecturers. The institutional development plans, based on the interior design concepts for the spaces, have been finalized. Once construction is complete, the three spaces will be officially launched, followed by orientation sessions.

To date, 17 virtual training sessions on the four modules have been developed. One session focusing on online inter-university experience sharing between the student networks was also held in 2021. Positive feedback from the students indicates that the training has contributed towards increasing their capacity and critical thinking skills, which has thereby increased sensitization towards the main themes of the project. The best student assignments were rewarded and featured on the Hashtag Inspire Facebook page.

Practical learning workshops for media and communication undergraduate students to help them develop, launch and disseminate 150 media products are also in the pipeline. These media products and research on “freedom of expression and new media culture” will form the basis for advocacy initiatives being conducted this year.