Injecting doubt into inoculation metaphors – Alison Hicks, University College London

Vaccination is, unsurprisingly, on all our minds right now. From Moderna and Sputnik to the newly coined idea of vaccine imperialism, jabs (or shots) are gumming up the airways as well as our conversations with friends and family. We can’t even escape the topic at work, as my colleague, Geoff Walton, demonstrated in his most recent ILG blog post, Information literacy and the theory of inoculation theory. In this post, Geoff proposes that inoculation theory, which suggests that “people can be inoculated against misinformation by being exposed to a refuted version of the message beforehand” (Cook, Lewandowsky & Ecker, 2018), could form a potential new information literacy tool in the ‘battle’ against fake news. The idea is catchy- inoculation messages will neutralise any fallacies that people encounter, as well as generating ‘antibodies’ that will protect against future interactions. Except, haven’t we been here before? Didn’t we encounter this metaphor back in the dim distant mists of ACRL Standards time? In the spirit of healthy scholarly conversation, I’d consequently like to use my turn on the ILG blog to explain why I am wary of this allusion. 

  The first reason why I’m wary of vaccination metaphors is because of their tendency to position learners as passive and as needing to be protected. Tracking down references to deficit thinking within information literacy literature is one of my favourite pastimes- so far, these ideas have been traced in studies of transfer, international and first generation students as well as in information literacy documents themselves (See Hicks & Lloyd 2020 for an overview). However, the inoculation metaphor risks bringing a slightly new twist by positioning people as vulnerable as well as lacking resources- seemingly completely unable to resist the power of fake news. These ideas erase learner subjectivity and agency, including the ability to actively resist, subvert or contest messages; the concurrent positioning of the teacher as somehow being the sole person able to liberate people also raises a number of power connotations. The emphasis on helpless victims also runs against the constructivist belief that people are active participants in knowledge construction; inoculation could, in many ways, be seen as a throwback to classic behaviourist ideas that position learning in terms of stimulus-response conditioning. 

    A second reason why I am wary of vaccination metaphors is that they risk positioning information literacy as a way of dealing with very “wide and complex social problems” (Buckingham, 1998). In the words of Shea Swauger (2021), “information literacy will NOT fix racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, classism, ableism, islamophobia, capitalism, colonialism, structural oppression, or white supremacy.”  Information literacy is, in fact, racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc, but that is a blog post for another time. Misinformation is a problem. However, the suggestion that ‘better’ information will resolve the social issues that lie behind fake news not only smacks of vocational awe (Ettarh, 2018) (“you just need to work harder!”) but it also privileges information literacy “over questions of ideology and power” (Mejia, Beckermann & Sullivan, 2018). These ideas are problematic because they position misinformation as an individual problem rather than one that is ethical, political and “entangled with underlying socioeconomic structures that keep some social groups in the margins” (Zembylas, 2020). They also draw upon techno-determinist beliefs that position fake news as responsible for making people racist or sexist, a simplistic idea that sees technology as determining of, rather than as determined by social structures. 

  A final reason why I am wary of the vaccination metaphor is because it implies that there is a core set of information literacy skills that will protect us in any given context. A quick search in my citation manager reveals that the idea of inoculation first came up in information literacy in the 2000s through the idea that composition classes could immunise students against bad writing habits (Jacobs & Jacobs, 2009). From here it is a small leap to the idea that information literacy can inoculate learners against bad information habits, an allusion that is made more vivid by the (admittedly unintentional) use of the ‘one shot’ metaphor, which suggests that a single class session will vaccinate students with “research knowledge” (Caffrey Gardner & White-Farnham, 2013). Yet, study beyond study demonstrates that information literacy looks different in every context – and misinformation is no different. As Zeynep (2021) points out, “critical thinking is not independent of knowledge,” and there is no magic recipe or core skillset that will help us to disentangle the institutional operation, the status, and the personal and psychological incentives that give shape to the many forms of mis- and disinformation out there.  

  I’ve been delving into the history of health literacy recently, and it is interesting to trace how public health theory has moved from a focus on protecting individuals to a recognition of the impact that social influences have upon illness. It looks like the CITAP disinformation syllabus, which examines the social structures that give shape to fake news, as well as the many hidden and nostalgic assumptions that lie behind assertions of post-truth politics, offers a similarly useful contribution for information literacy. It will make great reading as you wait for your COVID jab… 

Contributed by Alison Hicks, Programme Director, Library and Information Studies UCL, Editor in Chief Journal of Information Literacy and Information Literacy Researcher


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