Smart Regional Communities: Teaching Media Literacy Skills to the Smaller Regional Communities in Bulgaria

by Kristina Hristova

The Bulgarian society is heavily affected by the spread of disinformation and anti-democratic propaganda because of the lack of media literacy education. The problem is even larger in the smaller regions where citizens cannot access media literacy resources and encounter societal prejudices. In addition to the political and oligarch business ties that suffocate the freedom of expression, citizens contend with myths and fake news that spread easily in these small communities. Senior citizens represent the larger part of the populace in these smaller regions. Often, they are new to social media and haven’t had any media literacy education. Therefore, they are easy targets for manipulation and disinformation. The few civic organizations, active citizens, and journalists in these smaller communities do not have financial support and understanding from the local governments for programs that counter disinformation and teach media literacy skills. All of these factors contribute to these small communities becoming an easy target for regressive and malicious political and business interests, endangering the democracy for the whole country.

Our community project funded by an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State, “Smart Regional Communities” includes a series of online trainings in media literacy and digital security in small regional communities. The online training program in media literacy is designed for teachers, community centers, and library staff as well as local senior citizens. The training in digital security is designed for regional journalists and activists. The goal of “Smart Regional Communities” is to increase the media literacy skills of regional actors to participate effectively, while staying safe, in social and political life online and in social media.

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“Smart Regional Communities” received a lot of support and high praise from the community members participating in the training program. The community interest in participating in the training program was enormous. Our project team first began with the trainings for media literacy mentors in these communities with the hope that they will provide long-term support to the local citizens. The interest from the community centers and library staff was so strong that we had to split the participants in two training sessions as we could not train more than 20 participants at once. The total number of participants from the training cohorts was 239 people, much more than initially planned. We attracted one of the most popular investigative journalists in Bulgaria, Miroluba Benatova, to teach media literacy skills and digital security to the mentors and senior citizens. Miroluba is a very popular television journalist, and many people attended the training sessions to see her live. As a result, we were able to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have attended, understand the importance of being media literate.

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The training program for senior citizens was highly appreciated in Bulgarian society and attracted the attention of the media. I received the “Human of the Day” award from Free Europe. Almost all of the national television and print media reported on the program, as this was the first media literacy program for senior citizens in Bulgaria.

We had planned to conduct all the training sessions for senior citizens online with the support of the local community centers and libraries. But after the first online training, we realized that this format was not suitable for this target group. The relaxation of the COVID-19 measures made it possible to have several, small-scale trainings in person. The participants were very active during the training sessions. The most impressive result was the change of the participants’ attitudes toward the information they read online and their readiness to accept critical analysis.

“Smart Regional Communities” was implemented with the support of the Media Literacy Coalition and the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria. The Media Literacy Coalition supported the media literacy training, and the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria provided the training materials for the digital security education program for journalists and local activists. The support of these two organizations was of crucial in the recruitment of the target community members for the project.

The project proved itself to be of high importance for the Bulgarian citizens and we are currently in discussion with the Sofia community to involve the local libraries in the capital. Therefore, this adventure will continue during the summer months and hopefully into 2022!

Smart Regional Communities is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.