Information Illiterate

For the first six years of my career, I taught a middle school computer applications class.

Nobody really cared what I taught. They didn’t say that, of course. But the administration knew that kids needed to learn about computers, and they didn’t really know exactly what that should look like, so they carved out some space and just let me do my thing. I never had a course of study or a textbook or any kind of standards. And that was fine with me. I thought a lot about what the kids needed, and worked hard to give it to them.

This was at a time when we were just starting to talk about connecting schools with Internet access, which didn’t actually happen until midway through my third year. Still, the Internet wasn’t new to me. I’d been online for years. I knew it was a place to interact, connect, and collaborate with people all over the world. I knew that it could give students access to diverse perspectives and exposure to cultures and ideals that were very different from their own. And I knew that there was a dark side. Keeping civil discourse civil required significant effort on everyone’s part.

Image source: Bennett (who knows?)

With the dawn of the world wide web, the Internet became a very useful information resource. It would be years before most people had convenient ways of publishing their own ideas online, but the breadth of information available was astounding compared to what we were used to.

Schools quickly struggled with information credibility. I spent much of my master’s degree work exploring ways to prepare students for a world of information abundance. I did some original research on the role of anonymity in discussion forums. I developed and used software to help students access the credibility of online resources. I taught the basic idea of citing online sources, even at a time when APA and MLA had no mechanism for doing so.

In my first year after leaving the classroom, I chaired a committee to develop technology standards for our schools. We started with the knowledge and skills related to technology that we wanted out students to leave with, then we broke those down into grade levels and identified how and where those goals would be accomplished. One of the major pillars of that work was information literacy, including the ability to efficiently find, filter, evaluate, cite, and apply information found online. These ideas were introduced in elementary school, reinforced in middle school, and applied in high school.

Information Literacy, circa 1998

What happens when we encounter new information related to a belief we have? The first thing we need to do is examine the credibility of that new information. Who is promoting this content? What are their qualifications for expertise in this area? Why are they sharing this information in this way? Can the source be trusted? In the old days, we looked at domains and authors and revision dates and links to determine credibility. In the age of social media, the strategies changed somewhat, but the idea is still the same. Can the source be trusted?

If the source is not credible, we discard it and move on. If it is, we need to look at it in the context of our existing beliefs. Either it reinforces what we already know, and strengthens that belief, or it contradicts what we already know, and we have to revise our beliefs to accommodate the new information.

This is how learning works. We use new information all the time to revise our understanding of the world. Once a one-year-old has learned about dogs, there’s a time when all four-legged creatures are dogs. “No, honey, that’s a cat.” Cats and dogs are different. We revise our understanding. Oh, that’s a giant dog. No, that’s a deer. Deer and cats and dogs are different. As we gather more evidence, we refine our understanding. That’s how learning works.

I thought we did a pretty good job helping our students navigate the world of information abundance. The students were much better at information literacy than their parents were. The kids would question information and conclusions. They would ask for sources. They would roll their eyes every time their parents forwarded a chain email, or (later) reposted some misleading Facebook meme. Our students were going to save their gullible parents from the disinformation baked into the 21st century Internet. They were the path to civil online discourse.

But those kids — the ones I taught in middle school — are turning 40 now. Somewhere along the line, their process for evaluating information has been changed. Maybe the schools were too slow in making this critical skill an indispensable part of every learner’s school experience. Maybe outside factors — from homes and churches and cultural groups and society and media and ‘murica — worked to undo the understanding of how information abundance works. Maybe the trolls are smarter and more persistent and more patient than we realized. But somehow, too many people started doing it wrong:

Information lunacy, circa 2020

Again, we start with a belief, and new information related to that belief. But instead of starting by examining the source, we start by comparing the new information with out existing understanding. If they align, we use the new information to strengthen our existing understanding. It doesn’t matter what the source is. If it agrees with me, it must be right.

But if the new information contradicts what I already know, then I can start looking at credibility. Through this lens, though, I’m looking for a reason to discard the new information. “Fox news has reported…” Never mind. I’ve stopped paying attention. “A new study by NPR has determined…” Nope. We don’t need to go any further. When the information source can be disputed, we use that as a basis to entrench our beliefs.

Note that this assessment of credibility has changed quite a bit, too. For the most part, if the source isn’t aligned with our own political views, we dismiss it. If it’s on the same side of the media bias chart as we are, then it’s a credible source.

We know that unreliable information can be discarded (but note that we only do that now when it differs from our current belief). But what about reliable sources that seem to challenge what we know? Fortunately, there are new ways to resolve that cognitive dissonance, too.

In January, 2021, White House press secretary Sean Spicer began a daily ritual of lying to reporters. He started by claiming that more people had watched the inauguration than any other inauguration in history, a claim that was obviously false and easily disproven. He went on to dozens of more serious lies about everything from national security to the holocaust. In defending his statements, he constantly referred to “alternative facts.” It was clear that he was intentionally conflating fact and opinion, and making room for the justification of outrageous lies in view of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Once we accept the idea that there are no facts: everything is an opinion, we can say whatever we want, and our supporters will believe it. And the more the lies are repeated, the more credible they appear to be.

The other way to resolve the conflict is to plant the seed of “fake news.” Clearly, this person was misquoted, or taken out of context. That transcript has been doctored. That video has been faked. I never said that! We’ve all seen examples of how these things can be done. We know about deep fakes. And if we create a few ourselves, it adds fuel to the fire. We can point to them to discredit anyone who doesn’t agree with us.

That’s how you can continue to claim, two years after overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that the election was stolen. That’s how you can claim that a failed coup d’etat was actually just a “peaceful protest.” That’s how you can continue to assert that relaxing gun control measures reduces gun violence, or that restricting abortion rights has anything to do with babies.

The reality is that the citizenry is grossly unprepared to handle disinformation, propaganda, and information abundance. We do not know how to handle the cognitive dissonance caused by reliable evidence that challenges our beliefs. In short, we don’t know how to be wrong. So we posture up and entrench and defend and fight, which is not really very civilized at all.

I feel like this is my fault. I feel like I saw this coming. Or I should have seen this coming. Maybe I could have done more. But after 30 years, our students are worse at information literacy than they’ve ever been. And it’s tearing our world apart.