Corporations and established institutions inevitably are part of existing power structures.

Many may well be the sort of organizations that elements of the Fifth Estate aim to challenge and disrupt. If those institutions are smart, they will be open to the challenges posed by the Fifth Estate so they can learn and grow, as PMI explored in its 2022 white paper, “Rethinking Disruption: Innovating for Better in an Era of Division.

The business-as-usual approach of traditional power structures certainly needs disrupting. Pollution, resource depletion, energy and food insecurity, refugees, cybersecurity, disinformation, aging populations, and global warming are among the myriad chronic problems that risk becoming catastrophic if allowed to continue on their current trajectory. All too often, they are addressed with incremental change, with authorities tinkering at the margins until disaster strikes—then it’s temporary “fixes” until the dam bursts anew.

We believe that for positive disruption to happen at the necessary pace and scale, individuals must become change agents. There is no deficit of motivation to contribute to positive change. What people need is the time, energy, resources, skills, and tools required to step up and do their part. Some of the Fifth Estate individuals and organizations covered in this white paper are showing how to put such a desire for change into action.

Corporations and institutions can support the best of the Fifth Estate by fostering open debates on issues that matter, promoting diverse voices, and engaging responsibly with online communities. And all of us, as citizens, can contribute by critically evaluating information, constructively participating in online discussions, and supporting platforms that prioritize accuracy, civility, and the open exchange of ideas.

As shown in the international survey conducted by Povaddo, a majority of people want governments, regulators, and platform owners to support positive change online by improving law enforcement’s ability to investigate and hold to account those who misuse online platforms (63 percent), implementing initiatives to improve transparency (62 percent), and combating the generation and spread of misinformation (61 percent). Online users, too, have a role to play. Our survey respondents agreed that people should avoid sharing content without first verifying its authenticity (66 percent), insist on sources that fact-check information (55 percent), report inappropriate or inaccurate information (55 percent), educate themselves about the safe and appropriate use of online resources (53 percent), and seek out a variety of opinions to inform their views (49 percent).

Cultivate digital literacy

For the Fifth Estate to become a trustworthy source of information and a space for productive dialogue, it’s essential to address its weaknesses and threats, including misinformation, disinformation, and manipulation by bad actors. This has made digital literacy a hot agenda item. The American Library Association’s Digital Literacy Task Force defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” It covers seven elements: technical, civic, communicative, collaborative, computational thinking, investigative, and productive. Other important factors extend from the basics (e.g., access to digital devices, reliable connectivity, and an understanding of everyday applications) all the way to critical thinking and cybersecurity. In other words, digital literacy covers a wide range of issues. All are important to enable the Fifth Estate to grow and flourish to the benefit of all. Fortunately, there is no shortage of digital literacy programs, including a range of free resources from EdApp and Microsoft. Data to the People is an Australia-based organization that equips leaders and organizations to assess individual and organizational data literacy and design bespoke programs to improve the data competency of their workforces. Some U.S. states are addressing digital literacy in the classroom. California recently joined Delaware, New Jersey, and Texas in requiring media literacy instruction for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

If corporations and institutions recognize that digital literacy is essential to putting society on a path to better, they should make resources available to support it. This could mean offering workshops on how to identify misinformation and fact-check online content or funding specialized training for educators who want to teach digital literacy.

Foster responsible practices and ethical standards

At a minimum, corporations and institutions that interact and engage with the Fifth Estate must demonstrate their commitment to ethical standards by establishing and upholding clear principles and practices. These should be designed to ensure transparent engagement, responsible content sharing, and a commitment to recognizing and combating misinformation. Partnering with organizations that promote ethical standards, fact-checking, and transparency in digital media can complement these internal initiatives.

Work respectfully with the Fifth Estate

Many entities of the Fifth Estate are likely to regard traditional power structures as arrogant or even antithetical to their goals. This is understandable, even if it may be unfair.

If traditional power structures want to work collaboratively and productively with the Fifth Estate, they must identify those entities therein whose values and aims are most closely aligned with their own. They must engage with genuine openness and respect in two-way dialogues and be willing to listen, understand, and respond to concerns and critiques. This is all about working in the public interest to increase the power of civilized civil society. To achieve the progress we all seek, traditional corporations and institutions must create or seize opportunities to work with NGOs, advocacy groups, and members of the Fifth Estate on projects that serve the public interest.

Next section: Closing thoughts