Information literacy has been in the air recently, due to a spate of election-related disinformation programs. That situation does offer plenty of real-life lessons in evaluating information sources, at least in my mind. Some might question my assessment:
The abyss of information literacy is a symptom of a much, much larger problem. Well-intended infolit seminars are really just table scraps
— Rolin Moe (@RMoeJo) November 19, 2016
I have as much derision for the tree octopus as anyone, but I think this represents a limited view of information literacy – and I hold my profession partly responsible for that limited view. There is much more to it, and that is a much larger discussion.
But evaluating information does occupy a corner of info lit. It is interesting, as Bryan Alexander notes, that the recent Stanford study (PDF) doesn’t even use the term. I’m not sure what to make of that. I don’t think it’s an oversight. And I’m not sure that it’s a lack of awareness, coming from a university.
The spread of disinformation is not just a problem of evaluating information though. It’s also an issue of information ethics. The old ACRL Information Literacy Standards (PDF) had a section for ethics:
The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.
While it covers a range of issues, it seemed that the emphasis in practice was on intellectual property and academic integrity, with some nonsense about citation styles thrown in for good measure. The current Framework for Information Literacy include the threshold concept, Information Has Value:
Information possesses several dimensions of value, including as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means to influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world. Legal and socioeconomic interests influence information production and dissemination.
The knowledge practices and dispositions related to this frame align closely with the standard it replaced, highlighting IP and giving credit where credit is due, but they also reach beyond that. Information as a “means to influence, and as a means of negotiating” applies directly to our recent/current situation. “As creators and users of information, experts understand their rights and responsibilities when participating in a community of scholarship,” the Framework says, but these rights and responsibilities are not limited to the scholarly arena. We also have a ethical responsibility to truth, and if we engage in the dissemination of questionable or deceptive information, we are shirking our responsibilities.
Sometimes teachers put false information in Wikipedia to show that it is not a source to be trusted. There is an ethical problem with that, in that it is vandalism, and the ends don’t justify the means. I think we have an ethical responsibility to fix errors in Wikipedia, if we have the means and know-how. The problem of disinformation in social media is much larger though. It is probably not productive to challenge or try to correct the stories people share, as that can backfire. Can we get people into a habit of questioning and verifying though? Can we foster a habit of acknowledging and questioning our own biases? Can we inspire people to be leaders rather than followers and carriers? I see that as part of information literacy