By Mika Abdullaeva, Eurasia Foundation

International education is not just academic studies; it is about providing critical thinking tools at a time when world cultures are driven by competing ideologies that spread false news. Ideologies are dominated by alternative visions of power, wealth distribution, social engagement. Competition for power encourages divisiveness and polarization throughout society. Democratic institutions depend on tolerance of difference, protection of minorities, and civil institutions opposing discrimination and supporting education opportunity for all. 

A primary challenge of our time is to build stronger civic values and institutions. Education inhabits a cultural space central to unmasking false news and combating the mystification promoted throughout social media. 

Much education takes place online, particularly in virtual communities that connect people across distance and culture. Evidence shows that social media platforms promote tribal thinking that easily hardens into intolerant points of view. 

This is the kind of effect that allows extremist groups to use social media to enlist support globally. Moreover, state-controlled websites and social media platforms undermine democratic structures and values. Repressive governments block the free exchange of information and suppress discussion by targeting opposition voices. 

Alternative voices struggle find expression where campaigns are constantly discrediting external sources of information, resulting in narrow visions of society. Social media can enable radicalization of ethnic and religious populations internally, regionally, and even to diaspora populations. Recent events in the U.S., France, and the U.K. show how extremist propaganda has undermined civil society on a global scale.  

Countering negative uses of social media ultimately depends on strengthening civil institutions that promote respect, tolerance, and inclusiveness. A progressive online community upholds rules for social and political engagement in both online and community forums. Online discussion, forums, and chats can promote understanding, clear discussion, and attainable objectives. 

My experience with online platforms in social entrepreneurship has brought together young adults from different corners of their societies to form a learning environment that exposes each to the other across borders, ethnicity, religion, and class. We share similar aspirations and come to respect each other’s origins, and learn together the critical skills needed to identify and address problems in our public spaces and backyards. We learn to work with the limited resources at hand and develop the confidence to take our future in our hands.