Apologies to those of you who follow both blogs, but I definitely have to share topics across blogs this week. I’ve written a post over at bookconscious about a book that is very relevant to librarians who teach information literacy — The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall.
How do we help our students understand the level of mediation they face when they are seeking information, or even just passively receiving it? My colleagues and I spend a good deal of time thinking about this, and I think the answer is one interaction at a time. All we can do is talk to our students, in class visits, individual reference interactions, and research consultations, and remind them in the course of those conversations that information is packaged, targeted, framed, manipulated, and selectively shared, and then mediated further by search engines and discovery tools. I think helping them see that they are probably always operating within a limited view of the big picture is healthy. I’ve taken to telling classes, it’s not that they shouldn’t trust information or that they should have a mental list of “trustworthy” sources (a concept I try to get them to question anyway), but that information literate people should try to understand where information comes from and what the motivations of the people who published or posted it are.
Obviously that just scratches the surface, but I think it’s an important start and will serve many undergraduate students well in their research for assignments. Once they know who published something and why, they can move on to ask more questions: Who agrees and disagrees with this information? Is the disagreement based on facts or opinions? What evidence supports or doesn’t support this information? Is there a balance bias in the reporting? This my latest goal, to help students see that it’s actually biased to present different views as having equal merit when they don’t (for example, because one isn’t based in fact, or is held by a very small minority but is presented as a mainstream view).
The good news is that information literacy — the skills and habits of mind that make it possible to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly — can only help them. Some of our students may go on to take an active role in stopping the spread of misinformation or fighting it, in science, media, or policy-making roles. Others will not have an active role beyond being intentional about what they click on or share in their own networks, but they’ll know what to watch for as they consume information. Some of them will work for marketing, commercial, political or even media interests that are engaged in the work of misinforming the public, intentionally or as a result of serving their own interests above the public good. I like to think some bit of what they learn about information literacy will stay with them, wherever they end up.
I can’t recommend The Misinformation Age highly enough. I hope you’ll check out my review and either ask your librarian for it or if you’re a librarian, order it for your collection.