by Kelsey Maki
Our cultural context: A few facts
- Fact: Throughout history reasonable people have disagreed on the best solutions to problems.
- Fact: Disagreement pushes people to construct persuasive arguments from a shared set of facts.
- Fact: Political polarization has become so extreme that people no longer agree on basic facts.
- Fact: Our work as educators is exceedingly difficult in a polarized, post-truth era.
Information literacy: A global goal
According to UNESCO, “[i]nformation literacy empowers people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals.” Yet, recent research shows the information literacy skills of many adults to be lacking.
Scholarship cited in “Information Literacy: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice,” asserts that “many people’s information literacy ability to judge the validity and reliability of information, and to organize and synthesize the retrieved information for immediate and future use is poor, in spite of their self-perception of competence. The skill gaps in evaluating the validity and reliability of digital information are significant to the point of many naively sharing misinformation.”
Legislation in New Jersey
New Jersey has responded to this crisis with the Information Literacy for K-12 Education standards. The guidelines will include, at a minimum, the following:
- The research process and how information is created and produced.
- Critical thinking and using information resources.
- Research methods, including the difference between primary and secondary sources.
- The difference between facts, points of view, and opinions.
- Accessing peer-reviewed print and digital library resources.
- The economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information.
- The ethical production of information.
All is politicized
Despite the clear deficits in information literacy among the adult population, New Jersey’s law has been cast in a negative light by some conservative mass media outlets. Earlier this year, Candace Hathaway wrote in The Blaze that “[t]he legislation has some parents and critics concerned that news organizations with certain political leanings will be labeled more trustworthy than others, ultimately leading to indoctrination.”
The Blaze, which was founded by former Fox firebrand Glenn Beck, clearly has a conservative agenda, and although the article contains no evidence to support its claim of “indoctrination” by educators, Hathaway is nevertheless correct to raise the fraught question of what, exactly, counts as a “fact” in our current hyperpartisan political environment?
Humility as a shared starting point
In such divisive times, it seems sensible to start from a position of humility and apply elements of a “growth mindset” to our teaching practice. Acknowledging that our position as educators requires us to continue learning and adjusting our understanding is a potentially powerful lesson for our students.
In “The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science,” published in Edge in 2011, journalist Kathryn Schulz wrote, “the idea behind the meta-induction is that all of our theories are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong. If we can add that idea to our cognitive toolkit, we will be better able to listen with curiosity and empathy to those whose theories contradict our own.”
In “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling,” published in 2003 in the Library Quarterly, Christine Pawley noted the conflicting purposes of information literacy, which consist of “a promethean vision of citizen empowerment and democracy, and … a desire to control the ‘quality’ of information.” Pawley argues that “this tension can be productive and should be explored.” Another similar tension is inherent in our position as teachers, as our role casts us as authorities in our content areas, but we must be careful not to appear too authoritative, lest it discourage critical thinking and individual agency on the part of our students.
Critiquing binaries and other difficult dance moves
Teaching critical thinking in the context of information literacy asks educators to perform a delicate dance: We push students to question and analyze their sources while simultaneously asking them to have faith in shared facts and expertise.
Often, the teaching of information literacy begins and ends with educators reviewing basic distinctions between high quality vs. low quality, primary vs. secondary, and popular vs. scholarly sources. Yet, these binaries are problematic and reductive. Additionally, students often mistakenly assume that primary sources are always superior to secondary sources and scholarly sources are always superior to popular sources, when, in reality, primary sources are only as reliable as the person who composed them, and an increasing number of “scholarly” sources found on the open internet are of questionable quality and come from predatory publishers. Beall’s List catalogs an impressive list of predatory publishers at beallslist.net.
When it comes to information literacy, the nuances of the above categories seem far less relevant than the problem of misinformation on social media, as this is where our students acquire information about the world.
Social media and misinformation
We all know that there are extreme partisans of all political persuasions who spread misinformation and disinformation online. However, to approach the issue from the “neutral” standpoint of “both sides make mistakes” is to misrepresent the research, as recent scholarship has shown misinformation and “junk news” to be a bigger problem within certain partisan social media circles.
In an article titled “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US,” published in 2018, an international panel of academics from prestigious universities found “that the distribution of [junk news] is unevenly spread across the ideological spectrum … by demonstrat[ing] that (1) on Twitter, a network of Trump supporters shares the widest range of known junk news sources and circulates more junk news than all the other groups put together; (2) on Facebook, extreme hard right pages—distinct from Republican pages—share the widest range of known junk news sources and circulate more junk news than all the other audiences put together; (3) on average, the audiences for junk news on Twitter share a wider range of known junk news sources than audiences on Facebook’s public pages.”
In this study, “junk news” is defined as meeting at least three of the following six criteria: lack of professionalism, emotional style, lack of credible sourcing, publication bias, or being wholly counterfeit.
More recently, in 2021, Cybersecurity for Democracy (C4D) published a summary article titled “Far-Right News Sources on Facebook More Engaging” that analyzed the spread of misinformation on social media during the 2020 election, showing that “[c]enter and left partisan categories incur a misinformation penalty, while right-leaning sources do not.” As this research indicates, misinformation is more prominent on the far-right side of the political spectrum, but to share this information with students is to risk being perceived as a partisan who is attempting to “indoctrinate” students.
The false equivalency of AllSides
To avoid accusations of partisanship, many educators introduce websites such as AllSides, which compare headlines and articles from across the ideological spectrum. The main flaw, however, in sites like AllSides is that they create a false equivalency between sources on the left and sources on the right.
In the 2017 study “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” researchers at Harvard University found that “the structure and composition of mass media outlets on the right and on the left are quite different.” Bruce Etling and his colleagues explain that conservative and liberal media outlets are “rooted in different traditions and journalistic practices.” For example, conservative U.S. mass media outlets tend to be “highly partisan.” Whereas, liberal outlets tend to uphold the “traditions and practices of objective journalism.”
Additionally, the media landscape itself is not equally divided: “The center of gravity of the overall landscape is the center-left. Partisan media sources on the far-left are … of lesser importance than the major media outlets of the center-left. The center of attention and influence for conservative media is on the far right. The center-right is of minor importance and is the least represented portion of the media spectrum.”
This research indicates that the mass media information landscape does lean left, but the left-leaning sources tend to be more objective. AllSides, however, makes no effort to address this distinction. Their ratings, which are crowdsourced, only address perceived bias, while neglecting the important consideration of journalistic integrity.
Additionally, one must question the accuracy of AllSides’ crowdsourced ratings, as publications like The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, which are fiscally conservative, are now listed as “center” sources. Perhaps even more egregious, The New Yorker, which has a high level of factual reporting according to Media Bias/Fact Check (see sidebar) is positioned as a “far left” source, whereas One America News (OAN) Network, which has a low level of factual reporting, is listed as a “far right” source. While both sources do have a clear ideological bias, the quality of content within these outlets is vastly different.
While AllSides can be a useful tool in comparing partisan representations of news, both students and educators should question the validity of its ratings and seek to evaluate the journalistic integrity of all outlets listed on this site.
Skepticism and civil discourse
Our students’ natural inclination may be to become cynical and conclude that it’s impossible to locate a shared set of facts and engage in civil discourse with people who hold opposing viewpoints. But to encourage information literacy, we must not only ask students to read across the ideological spectrum, we must make sure they’re prepared to approach all information from the cognitively demanding position of a skeptic.
In They Say / I Say, published in 2010, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that in our “increasingly diverse, global society, this ability to engage with the ideas of others is especially crucial to democratic citizenship.” Graff and Birkenstein also promote the importance of listening, a practice not often prioritized during debates. In the introduction to their seminal text, Graff and Birkenstein assert that “the underlying structure of effective academic writing—and of responsible public discourse—resides not just in stating our own ideas but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding … in kind.”
It’s important that we create a space in our classrooms where shared facts from sources with minimal bias can be identified so that productive and respectful debate can ensue. Our goal as educators must never be to indoctrinate our students, but we do have a responsibility to avoid false equivalencies and share the general consensus of experts concerning the current state of our information landscape.
We must provide our students with the tools and skills that will help them locate high-quality information and construct their own arguments. In the end, the future of productive debate and civic engagement may very well depend on the information literacy skills of this next generation of American voters.
Kelsey Maki is an associate professor of English at Brookdale Community College and current course coordinator for English 122: Writing and Research. She is a member of the BCC Faculty Association and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information literacy tools
While there is no single, “perfect” fact-checking tool currently available, these sites are good starting points. (Beware of “fact-checkers” with a clear bias.)
- Media Bias/Fact Check allows you to search media sources to determine their bias and level of factual reporting. The information is researched by a nonpartisan staff. (mediabiasfactcheck.com)
- FactCheck.org, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, dispels the myths and falsehoods surrounding current events. It’s a comprehensive and lauded site. (factcheck.org)
- Politifact.com, which is run by the Poynter Institute for journalism, analyzes the veracity of statements made by politicians, with an occasional Facebook post thrown in for good measure. It won a Pulitzer Prize and is considered nonpartisan. (politifact.com)
- Snopes is the go-to site for debunking internet rumors and should be your first stop for pop-culture shares that sound outlandish. (snopes.com)
- NewsGuard is an online tool that can be added as an extension to your internet browser to determine the purpose and legitimacy of a news source.
- Real or Satire is a site where you can check whether a source is serious or engaging in parody, as purpose can sometimes be obscured or difficult to determine. (realorsatire.com)
- Hoaxy, coordinated by Indiana University, gives you a real-time picture of online engagement with information trending on social media. It shows a graphic of real users vs. bots. (hoaxy.osome.iu.edu)
- Consumer Reports is a magazine and online resource that independently evaluates products and does not accept money from advertisers. It is a nonprofit organization. (consumerreports.org)
- Kaiser Family Foundation is a credible nonprofit organization focused on researching health issues and social safety nets. (kff.org)
- Quackwatch is run by Dr. Stephen Barrett, and it represents an “international network of people who are concerned about health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct.” (quackwatch.org)
- Campus Election and Engagement Project prepares nonpartisan guides that tell you where political candidates stand on a variety of issues. (bit.ly/civic-ceep)