Racism as Malinformation

I am sorry for the long absence. Going back to in person work and then starting the semester with mostly in person classes, helping a lot of people who haven’t been on campus before, adjusting to a number of changes on campus in leadership, staff, etc. has been a time. I am seeing some glimpses now, not of “a new normal” — I don’t think I believe in normal anymore — but of a less frenetic pace.

So in the last day or so I was able to revisit an article I read in August in the relative calm just before the pre-semester rush on campus: “Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: Racism as a Form of Persistent Malinformation” by Nicole A. Cooke, a librarian whose work I very much admire. Cooke’s article is part of the Project Information Literacy Provocation series. You may recall I shared in earlier posts Barbara Fister’s essay on information literacy in a time of QAnon, and Alison J. Head’s essay on critical reading in college. I can’t say enough good things about the series and how it’s influenced my own work this year. In fact, an English professor colleague and I are working closely with one of her classes this fall on critical reading as a result of these essays so far.

Cooke reminds readers that approaching information critically is not enough; she came to see that the racial malinformation our culture is steeped in, “the phenomenon of how we are conditioned, socialized, and repeatedly bombarded with racist and negative images and stereotypes,” requires a different kind of literacy that considers not only what is untrue, but how. She says it so brilliantly, I will quote her:

“Critical information and media literacies address relational structures and power dynamics, which is crucial, but that wasn’t enough. Even more context and a holistic lens was needed in order to truly understand the convergences that create racial malinformation. We need to understand history, politics, design, emotional intelligence, cultural competence, and racial dynamics. We need critical cultural literacy.”

Cooke gives examples of this kind of literacy in her essay. I’ve been trying to practice it more intentionally — emphasis on practice. Here is a very recent example of this practice: reports of the protests outside the Met gala a few nights ago in New York City. First, I hadn’t heard about the protests until my daughter mentioned them this evening. I get my news primarily from headlines from the local paper my college library subscribes to (I rarely have time at work to go beyond the headlines), and the New York Times app on my phone, and had not noticed this story ineither place.

When I searched online, I initially only found reports on the protest and arrests from Fox News, email providers (MSN, Yahoo, AOL) whose stories came from various news services that relied heavily on social media accounts, and British papers. Digging deeper, I found the New York Times‘ mention — buried in an article that focuses on other details about the gala — and then an article on The Advocate‘s website by Mikelle Street, and another on The Root by Maiysha Kai. If you aren’t familiar with these, the first is an LGBTQ magazine and the second is a media website whose tagline is “The Blacker the Content the Sweeter the Truth.”

Quick aside: Kai’s story is also the only place I saw Jeremy Pope’s ensemble, and two of us in this house stayed up way too late on the 13th dissecting the gala ensembles — mainly on Vogue‘s website. Pope is black, and his”all-white ensemble was a tribute to the legacy of enslaved and exploited African Americans and the ever-lucrative cultivation of cotton on the country’s soil—the foundation of the same fashion industry being celebrated on Monday night,” writes Kai, who also notes Pope’s ensemble was “largely overlooked” in reporting. Sit with that understatement. Even the fashion press did not note what was clearly a very aesthetically interesting and thematically spot-on outfit, worn by a black man, that included a cotton picking sack that looked a little like a train.

Back to the protest coverage. In reading these accounts here is what critical cultural literacy tells me: only Fox and the British papers ran stories entirely about the protest and arrests, while other sources mentioned the protests within articles about the gala. Both The Advocate and The Root commented on the injustice of the protests. The others either reported what the police said the protestors did wrong (disorderly conduct, according to the Fox story — which by the looks of the eyewitness videos, is an apt description of the police themselves, who tackled people), or what bystanders posted on social media. So most major news outlets did not really cover the protests as a news story. They covered the wealthy attending the gala. And as noted by Kai’s article in The Root, only the wealthy who did not remind them too blatantly of America’s slaveholding past.

That’s what I noticed about the press coverage. As for the event itself: one report noted this was a peaceful protest, that protestors were speaking out about police brutality and promoting abolitionist views such as using what protest fliers claimed is an $11 billion New York police budget to care for people who need housing and other basic needs. I live in a white town, and a few years ago, when I worked close to the state capitol, I attended some rallies and protests to support an end to homelessness, a more just budget, etc. Never was a single (almost all white — I live in NH) peaceful protester arrested let alone wrestled to the ground. Also, as Cooke herself notes in the beginning of “Tell Me Sweet Little Lies,” about the summer 2020 protests, “Despite the fact that 93% of these Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were peaceful, they were labeled as violent, destructive, unnecessary, and unproductive.”

I see this reproduced in both the assertion that the Met gala protestors were “disorderly” and the lack of attention that most of the media gave the protest or its causes. This was according to many reports on social media (mentioned in the news reports) a large crowd outside an event that was widely covered, and the protest was aimed at drawing attention to that eye-popping police budget in a city where the police have a long track record of discrimination, abuse, and murder. The same city where police used violent tactics to disperse protests in summer 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. Why? Because in America’s dominant culture, Black lives don’t matter as much as money. The major media companies’ context is that dominant culture, and they told the story of the gala, from that context.

So what do I do with this information? Talk about it with the same people I talked about the gala fashion with, seek what’s missing from stories I see in the future, try to understand whose stories aren’t being told (arguably harder than skimming headlines), find alternative sources of news that do tell those stories. Remember, as I learned in my science communication studies, that all information is mediated through various lenses, and in many cases, it’s the dominant (or hegemonic, to use the more academic term) culture’s lens. And, heed Cooke’s very wise conclusion:

“CCL requires critical self-reflection and the desire for equitable information and non-racist perceptions of others. We have to reexamine and reimagine everything we’ve been taught and ask ourselves “What perspectives and voices are missing from what I think I know? How can I do better and learn more?” When we examine our own identities, privileges, and disadvantages, we are better positioned to have empathy for others and do the work of dismantling racist malinformation with CCL. Part of this work involves pushing back against the media, publishing, and other entities that produce racist malinformation and are chronically resistant to change (because change typically involves a loss of revenue and power). But if we are diligent and take the time to explode siloed echo chambers of racist malinformation, we can slow and maybe even reverse this crisis.”

I will end on that hopeful note, and Cooke’s words. Go read the rest here.

Information literacy, millenials, and the presidential election

I recently posted on my Facebook page that the current election campaign is a helpful example in my library instruction classes, because when I tell my university students that they need to think critically about what’s true when they search online, and really examine the source of the information, the motive and intent behind a post or website, etc., they really get it. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review , “What the News Media Can Learn from Librarians,” seems to validate my point.

Journalist Louise Lief refers to “the framework of information literacy” in her article, by which I believe she means the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education which replaced a previous set of standards and thresholds for information literacy. Academic librarians have critiqued The Framework for being a bit vague, unwieldy to apply, and hard to measure and assess. Lief made it seem quite practical and smart, and suggests that journalists could learn from it.

First she notes that according to The Pew Research Center, 18-29 year olds are fairly skeptical of the media. Contrary to the over-reported notion that young people believe everything they see online, Lief notes that “Although they prefer to get their news online and are more likely to see it on social  networking sites, many don’t trust information they get there. They are more likely than other age groups to sense media bias.”

She goes on to say that in her view,

“The information literacy framework offers them a more meaningful way to engage with and manage information. The librarians encourage users to focus on inquiry rather than opinion, to evaluate a range of sources, take into account diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to develop the ability to pursue new avenues as they gain new understanding. They also urge users to assess the value of information in its various forms. Is it being used as a commodity, a way to understand the world, a means to influence, a path to educate, or some combination of these? They regard users not only as knowledge consumers, but also as knowledge creators.”

At my university we teach students the C.R.A.A.P. test for evaluating information on the web. We ask them to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of a site. Most of my students haven’t thought much about why online ads exist, or why a site with ads* may be selecting what and how to post in order to attract the highest number of clicks (and thus ad revenue). Another thing I don’t think students have generally thought of, and I admit I myself have given scant attention to, is that the very act of finding information online is rigged by corporations, as Angela Merkel pointed out this week. In case you missed it, the German chancellor said at a media conference that popular (and profitable) search engines like Google, and social media outlets like Facebook, are “distorting perception.”

What Google returns when you enter a search string is based on their proprietary algorithms. In other words, a huge corporation decides what you find out when you search for something online. And don’t forget, they are also harvesting information about your searches and profiting by providing that information to advertisers and companies eager to sell you things.

On Facebook, where many people get their news, according to the same Guardian article linked above, you are even more limited:

“This month, President Barack Obama’s former social media adviser Caleb Gardner highlighted the danger of filter bubbles – a phrase invented by the internet activist Eli Pariser. ‘More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook,” Gardner told students at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Forty-four per cent of US adults get news on the site, and 61% of millennials … if that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.'”

Why does any of this matter? Most of us are not going to get partisan in our library instruction. But we can point out, as this Vox article does, that the real scandal this election season is how the repeated use of the word scandal, and others like it, has dominated media coverage, obscuring information about actual policy issues. Authority is constructed and contextual, the Framework begins. In the case of commercial media, publishing, and internet corporations, it’s constructed and contextualized in order to profit, first and foremost.

Should you stop searching the internet? No. But you should take the time to search beyond your own “filter bubble,” and to be a critical consumer of information. Think like an 18-29 year old, in other words.

*If you can see ads when reading my blogs, know that I didn’t have anything to do with them, but they are the cost of having a free space for The Nocturnal Librarian and bookconscious at WordPress.com.

More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.

 

An Occupy Wall Street Primer

Occupy Wall Street is a challenging movement to follow, since it claims to have no leaders and the media has put more effort into arguing about whether/when/how to cover it than they have covering it.  When I heard that my hometown would be the site of an Occupy Movement general assembly in our placid downtown park, I decided I’d like to know more about what the movement stands for.

OccupyWallSt.org includes the Sept. 17 call to action, a blog that references actions from other parts of the country and the world and live streaming coverage. The site includes contact information, directions and other logistical information, chat and discussion forums, as well as links to other sites. Occupy Together is “an unofficial hub for all of the events springing up across the country in solidarity” with the Wall Street protests. Both sites sport simple but cool design and highlight the techy savviness of this movement.

I found this timeline of  Occupy Wall Street and the accompanying Wikipedia article interesting. It’s fairly in-depth and contains a large number of links.  Wikipedia notes that since this is a current events topic, information can change rapidly, and that’s a good point.

Wired.com gives the hacker/maker flavor of Occupy a shout out with a photo gallery, but if you’re interested in who Occupiers are and why they are protesting, check out We Are the 99% on Tumblr. This is a social media movement, and Twitter is full of references to #OccupyWallStreet, #OccupyWallSt, #OWS, #Sept17, #Occupy, and other hashtags specific to locations, like #OccupyBoston.

If you’re more inclined to digest your news with a healthy dose of humor, news satirist-in-chief Jon Stewart has devoted a number of Daily Show segments to Occupy Wall Street, its critics, and the media coverage. Want a less profane but quite profound comedic response? Search Twitter for #occupysesamestreet.

See the comments below for more resources.