I’ve thought for years that we need to help students do more than find and use information, we need to help them know where it comes from and what traditions and practices influence it. (I published an article making this argument the year before Mark Zuckerberg scraped the Harvard student directory and made a “hot or not” app that eventually became Facebook, and designed and taught a seminar starting in 2005 that tried to address this notion.) So it’s not a new burr under my saddle, but it has been aggravated by the flourishing of our epistemological crisis. It was honestly kind of exhilarating to draft the first PIL Provocation essay on this theme, using the meta-conspiracy theory QAnon as an example. It fascinates me that “doing the research” and “thinking critically” can lead to … where QAnoners have gone.
Thanks to help from some friends, The Atlantic picked up that essay and published a version, which meant people who never use the phrase “information literacy” saw it. And both of those publications led to invitations to be part of two online conferences, Reimagine the Internet (a week of panel discussions led by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the the Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and LILAC‘s FestivIL, a digital offshoot of a long-running and excellent annual event in the UK focused on information literacy. Since I had to record my FesttivIL presentation right around the same time as Ethan’s conference, I adapted the same argument and materials to two different audiences. What follows is more or less the text of my FestivIL presentation. (This week, when the event actually happened, I was able to discuss with delegates the ideas in my recorded presentation – a very smart way to simulate the warmth and informal interaction of LILAC.)
Hi, and thanks for letting me be part of the FestivIL by LILAC, it’s a great honor. I’m coming to you from southern Minnesota on land that was taken by a fraudulent treaty from the Dakota people of the Očhéthi Šakówin. It’s important for me to acknowledge my home is on stolen land and to reflect on how little I knew about the people who were here long before my ancestors left Europe, and are here still. I grew up with the Little House on the Prairie books and the myth of the frontier. I inherited a colonialist mindset that I’m still unlearning.
In 1872 a creepy painting titled “American Progress” showed a giant white woman dressed in a diaphanous toga astride the nation, leading civilization westward and advancing. She strings telegraph lines as she goes, and the land brightens around her as native people and wildlife are pushed into the darkness at the western edge of the land. It was a popular work, commissioned for a publisher of guidebooks for those who wanted to settle the vast and empty west, inviting them to be part of this brave new world, free of Indians, bears, and bison.
This colonialist mindset, this idea of American progress, to a large extent infused the early internet. It was marked by an optimistic but blinkered belief that a new, enlightened, free society of rugged individualists was emerging, independent of the old rules, dedicated to freedom to do and be whatever one wanted, a fertile ground for innovation, entrepreneurship, and progress.
We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice . . . We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs . . . from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.
John Perry Barlow, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” 1996
You can see this attitude articulated in the mid-1990s, that the Internet was a New World free of prejudice, where all would be free to express themselves, has persisted to the present, dominated by a handful of powerful platforms that overlooked how people might abuse these algorithmic engines for persuasion. Though Mark Zuckerberg talks about the “Facebook community” there is no such thing as a community of nearly three billion people. The scale makes it impossible. What Facebook truly values is growth (bringing more people across the globe into their fold) and engagement (which enables them to extract value from those people by collecting and monetizing data about every aspect of their lives). As Adrienne La France of The Atlantic put it in an article last year, Facebook’s seemingly benign civilizing mission, “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” is imperialistic.
This is not the internet we thought we had; but in fact the internet we actually had led to the one we have today – one that carelessly assumes people would magically get along even as the platform acted as a mass persuasion machine, leading to an internet that is monopolized, polarized, and commercialized.
Trying to understand this digital infrastructure as it has evolved and teach students how to think about it has been my work as a librarian. Currently I’m affiliated with Project Information Literacy, a non-profit research institute directed by Dr. Alison Head who has designed and shepherded a dozen large-scale research projects involving over 22,000 undergraduate students at 97 institutions, illuminating students’ experiences with information – how they use it for school, in their daily lives, as they read the news, and what they take with them into the workplace after graduation. I joined the team in time to work on a 2020 study, Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms, and now am a contributing editor for a new series of essays designed to encourage discussion about challenges facing educators in an era when our information environment is so unstable.
Previously, I spent over thirty years at a small liberal arts college teaching undergraduates about how to find, use, create, and understand information, and that entailed folding the evolution of the internet into my scope of practice as it developed.
To some extent, claims for media and information literacy have been bolstered by anxiety about new technologies. In the 1980s, the fear was that we would fall behind if people weren’t successfully brought into the information age. Survival of individuals and nations depended on it. As one librarian put it, “None can escape the ongoing effects of the information society on their lives, on their ability to survive if not succeed at their jobs, and on their success in living a meaningful life.” With the advent of the web as a popular platform for expression, fear focused on the loss of gatekeepers. What would happen if anyone could publish online? Faculty suddenly wanted librarians to help students become critically skeptical, and we often used fake sites to show students they had to be very, very cautious when you ventured online. More recently, we rolled up our sleeves to address the “fake news” crisis by building tens of thousands of guides to teach students how to check facts and debunk lies.
Unfortunately, none of it really scratches the surface of what’s wrong with our information ecosystem and the deep fissures that have polarized not just what we consider facts, but how we know what we know.
Ideally media literacy is a complex set of skills, dispositions, and practices helps students learn how information works and gives them a sense of how they can participate in making knowledge. We want students to be empowered by their involvement with information. We want them to develop information agency – to see in themselves the power and the right to create new knowledge, to question authority, to make up their minds.
In practice, it falls short. In K12 media literacy instruction, learners are often positioned as naïve consumers learning how to review media objects, trained to reject those that prove to be faulty. In higher education, students are taught how to sort through resources created by other people and placed in walled gardens in order to satisfy their professors expectations and avoid materials that are “unsafe.”
That consumerist notion persists in the design of library systems. Google and Amazon made it seem as if search should be easy, so libraries followed their example. Using a simple search box, you can find over a hundred thousand sources on neoliberalism from the Everything Library! How’s that for consumer choice? No wonder students learn shortcuts to manage the overload.
Project Information literacy’s studies have illuminated the ways students interpret the research tasks they are assigned. They have trouble getting started. They adopt a strategy and stick with it, seeking “safe” sources. They follow the news, but don’t trust it. After graduation, they report they don’t feel their college education helped them learn how to ask questions of their own. We’ve paid too little attention to how these classroom situations, focused on skepticism and becoming better at navigating information shopping sites, might transfer to more complex realities. We’ve too often told them what sources to trust, not why.
When we held focus groups with college students to discuss what they knew about algorithmic information systems, we learned a lot – not only about how they try to protect their privacy and how they feel about the “creepy” ads that follow them around, but also about how inadequate they felt their classroom experiences with media literacy were. They also felt they grew up in a very different world than their teachers, one where nothing could be trusted. They’ve been schooled in skepticism.
And even though students found their schooling inadequate, when confronted with the rise of QAnon as a popular meta-conspiracy, people very often suggested the solution was more media literacy. The trouble is QAnons do not lack for media literacy. In fact, our insistence on distrusting information and seeking one’s own truth seems to have backfired. The sense of information agency we wish we would see in our students, QAnons embrace.
A meme circulating among QAnons demonstrates the link between “research for yourself” and “think critically” with the emergence of an alternative trust framework. For many Americans today, all traditional authority is suspect. They’ve been schooled in skepticism by the right-wing press, convinced that the media and other social institutions, including science and public education, are not to be trusted, but if you do the research yourself and trust the plan, there’s an inexhaustible well of evidence available online for every screwy theory.
So where does this leave us? If doubling down on our media literacy efforts isn’t the answer, what is? Sometimes, honestly, I just feel despair. If we can’t agree on how to determine what is true, if we can’t overcome our profound epistemological differences, if we persist in having a large percentage of the population believing fiercely in things that are demonstrably false, I worry we’ll never find a way to come to some common understanding. But I think there are things we can do to make media and information literacy a richer learning experience.
Recognize the importance of learning to trust, and to consider why to trust rather than what to trust. Explore underlying values of knowledge systems, institutions, and practices. Examine how information systems work on society. Look for the helpers! There are many people doing excellent research in this area, and libraries could host conversations that bring together local experts to help us figure this out. Peer-to-peer learning is powerful, and there is room for students to engage in community outreach. Encourage information agency – with responsibility, with a strong sense of ethics. Frame learning about information systems as education for democracy. Our rift is too often seen as a political struggle, so one that’s off limits. But this problem is really about epistemology, and we need to think about how our information systems support or undermine democracy.
One last thought, tied to the “community” theme of the conference: If we want to reimagine our information ecosystem, if we want to advocate for something better, we have a working model of the theme of this conference that offers some hope.
The idea of a library is formed around community. These communities are not created out of shared identities or grievances; they are made up of everyone who happens to live within a geographic space, neighbors who may not know one another, a diverse group of individuals who can come to the library to ask different questions, pursue a variety of goals, all sharing a space where their questions are welcome and membership isn’t defined by shared identity or by hostility to other communities. Though libraries never quite achieve their goals – in reality we fall far short of living up to our values and the librarian’s code of ethics – in the abstract libraries are ideally self-governing spaces belonging to diverse neighbors. With the help of library workers, it is really the people in the community who shape what the library offers. Libraries are civic spaces built and maintained as common ground for the public good. Imagine if the internet worked that way.
The broader community of librarians – like all of us here for the FestivIL – work together to build and maintain this vision of community that has endured for a long, long time, an always-evolving yet deceptively traditional model of social infrastructure. As we strive to live up to them, our core values offer hope that a social information system designed for the common good, not commerce, is possible.