Battling Information Illiteracy

How misinformation affects the future of policy

July 17, 2019

Man whose shadow nose extends Pinocchio-style in front of the Twitter bird logo

In summer 2018, California was experiencing its worst wildfire season ever. In the midst of the destruction—damage to thousands of homes, evacuations of tens of thousands of people, and deaths of firefighters and residents—President Trump initially addressed the situation with a tweet that did not acknowledge these losses. Instead, he blasted the laws of the state for intensifying the wildfire damage:

“California wildfires are being magnified and made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire from spreading!”

This tweet was a statement by a US president about a major event, suggesting changes to existing policies. It is also not true. Every element of the tweet—other than the existence of California, the Pacific Ocean, and wildfires—is false. And it was not a simple misunderstanding, because a tweet from Trump the next day reiterated these themes and blamed the state’s governor personally for holding back water to fight the fires.

So how does this pertain to information policy, since the tweet is about environmental policy issues? The answer is in the information. The use and misuse of information in governance and policymaking may be turning into the biggest information policy issue of all. And as technologies and methods of communication evolve, a large part of engaging with and advocating for information policy will consist of addressing the new challenges of teaching information literacy and behavior.

Misinformation literacy

The internet has made it easy for people to be information illiterate in new ways. Anyone can create information now—regardless of quality—and get it in front of a large number of people. The ability of social media to spread information as fast as possible, and to as many people as possible, challenges literacy, as does the ability to manipulate images, sounds, and video with ease.

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Information Policy by Paul T. Jaeger and Natalie Greene Taylor (ALA Neal-Schuman, 2019).
This is an excerpt from Foundations of Information Policy by Paul T. Jaeger and Natalie Greene Taylor (ALA Neal-Schuman, 2019).

Since the 2016 presidential election, libraries have constructed hundreds of online fake news pathfinders and tools, but the scope of the problem is larger than learning aids alone can handle. The future of information literacy stands at the intersection of literacy and behavior. Self-awareness; decision-making processes for what to access, use, trust, and share; and awareness of potential manipulations of information are central and explicit aspects of information literacy. However information professionals address the spiraling challenges of information literacy and information behavior, that work will be a key part of serving patrons and communities directly and society as a whole. Too much reliance on incorrect information can lead to very poor policy choices.

Confirmation bias is also a serious impediment, even when you are aware of it. When faced with information that contradicts or even disproves what they believe, people tend to resist facts, according to “Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship” (Journal of Politics, 2000). These limitations are based not just on demographics or level of technological engagement. A 2016 Stanford study of US middle school, high school, and college students described their online information literacy as “bleak” and noted that they are “easily duped” into believing fake content. Interestingly, a 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 18- to 49-year-old Americans were better than their elders at distinguishing factual news statements from opinions, although no age group did particularly well—less than half of those surveyed could distinguish all the factual and opinion statements correctly.

The cliché about a lie spreading around the world faster than the truth can get out of bed has been attributed to a number of people recently, but the expression has been around at least 200 years. Lies have always spread efficiently. But now, lies can move faster and be disseminated more easily than ever, meaning that political opinions and policy decisions can be shaped and determined by misinformation and disinformation.

Information policy in a dangerous time

Along with the challenges raised by information literacy, information behavior, fake news, and the information misbehavior of political figures, another challenge for librarians is the lack of a unified governmental approach to information policy. The US has no comprehensive strategy for information policy or an omnibus legal framework for information. This is rare among technologically advanced nations, especially in the age of the internet.

For instance, both France and India have used their national information and technology policies as focusing mechanisms for policy decisions. That has led to huge gains in the information technology sectors of their economies while also encouraging their citizens to work in information and technology. France, for example, overhauled its French Tech Visas in early 2019 to make it easier for international tech business founders, employees, and investors to work in the country.

The lack of a similar policy in the US is more than an issue of education or economic competition. It means that information policy grows and matures or fails to grow and mature in a perpetual ad hoc fashion. Policies do not necessarily link or even make sense together, and preparing for policy developments can be very difficult for fields and professions. For information professions, these difficulties cut to the bone because we need to advocate simultaneously for the people we serve and for the profession. Understanding and engaging with information policy must be central to the career of every information professional.

Taking action

Information professionals can and should have a voice in the future of information policy, if we are willing to make the effort. We have a great deal to contribute, both by improving current policies to increase their overall benefit and impact and by identifying new areas to be addressed. We have prioritized teaching information literacy and thoughtful information behavior for more than a century. The people drawn to our profession have a service orientation and an interest in improving the common good. Rather than staying on the periphery, we need to put all these pieces together and put them to good use. We need to carry the fire that fuels our focus on education, learning, and service into the realm of information policy. Too often, the good that we do and the help that we provide are known only to those who already benefit.

Our institutions are essential but need to make themselves more visible. We need to be information activists, advocating not just for our own institutions and communities but for information itself and the good it provides to everyone. The most crucial step is putting aside our collective fear of being seen as political. Building an information institution and opening its doors to patrons daily are political statements, statements that emphatically express our beliefs in education, equity, and the common good. We do not need to side with specific political candidates or parties, but we should loudly and enthusiastically advocate for the right to information and the right to be educated about information and all that those fundamental rights entail. We should encourage community members to seriously engage with politicians and policymakers on information policy issues. And we need to seek out and engage institutions in professional fields that share similar commitments as allies and partners in advocacy.

We need to think about educating as broadly as possible in these areas. That can mean reaching far beyond our current users to those who may not be aware of our institutions but who would certainly benefit from their help. Think about the public battles over health care laws, access to insurance, coverage of preexisting conditions, and related issues that have been central to political debates since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Many of the institutions in our field—especially public and academic libraries—helped people sign up for coverage, but we collectively could be doing so much more. Imagine if health and medical librarians promoted health information and health policy literacy at the same time by producing guides to understanding information issues raised in political debates.

Our institutions are trusted by the public and have a great deal to contribute to public discourse, if we just learn to trust ourselves.


Dallas high school students participate in a Storytellers without Borders session in collaboration with The Dallas Morning News at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library branch of Dallas Public Library. Photo: Tom Huang/The Dallas Morning News

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