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Why do we associate information literacy with fake news?

In this guest post, JIL’s Editor in Chief, Alison Hicks asks “Why do we associate information literacy with fake news?”.

Alison Hicks
Alison Hicks

I mean I obviously know why, in principle. ‘Fake news’, alternative facts, misinformation, disinformation or whatever you want to call it is associated with bias, trust, reliability, credibility and authority, all of which are hallmarks of common information literacy discourse and practice. A more critical answer might be that ‘fake news’ has been a hot topic ever since it became popularised through current events, so pegging information literacy to this newfound interest in critical thinking provides a way to advance the principles that lie behind our work (as well as librarianship itself, a permanently embattled profession). But I also wonder whether an automatic linking of fake news with information literacy might also be perpetuating assumptions about what information literacy is- or what it can do. While some may argue that this is not a problem – because it is not as if information literacy is likely to be winning Time Person of the Year any time soon so let’s make the most of it – I also think it is important that we try and unpack some of this literature if we are to going to make these topics key aspects of our practice.

One of the aspects of this newfound interest in fake news that I find most problematic is the ‘token gesture,’ when information literacy is scattered like fairy dust over the conclusion of a misinformation paper. The journalist/ academic / government official / random opinionated commentator spends the entire piece telling us why misinformation is such a problem before throwing in a couple of confident claims in the final few lines as to how information literacy education is the answer. It’s never very clear whether the author is aware of existing instructional efforts, or whether they’ve come across research that has gone into questions of, you know, credibility (e.g., Sundin & Francke, 2009) and authority (e.g., Wilson, 1983) but, no matter, information literacy education, whether this is more of it or simply a need for it to be an unspecified ‘better’, is definitely the answer.

I don’t need even more than a passing understanding of the SIFT method to pick holes in this approach- most prominently related to the swingeing cuts that have been stretching institutions to their limits for years, including in school and public libraries where much of this work would take place. However, there also seem to be a few more subtle issues going on here that I think are worth exploring in more detail. More specifically, I worry that positioning information literacy instruction as the ‘solution’ for misinformation harks back to outdated cognitive information processing models wherein people are positioned as rational and emotion-free decision-makers, and ‘poor’ choices are linked to ignorance or a simple lack of knowledge. From this perspective, misinformation is seen to form an information access problem – people will make rational choices if they only have access to more and better information – and information literacy education is positioned as the means through which this information can be made available to the unenlightened.

Except, it doesn’t really work like that, does it? For a start, these ideas locate misinformation as a straightforward entity or a single source of contested information that can be mediated though personal responsibility rather than forming a complex social issue that is tied up with manipulative systems of oppression and profit-driven media and technology ownership. More problematically, they see people as passive and individualistic receivers of knowledge rather than as complex social beings who play an active role in shaping their lives. They further position information literacy education in terms of information transfer or as a way to ‘fix’ defective information strategies rather than as the means through which people develop situated and embodied ways of knowing. Lastly, this approach also risks perpetuating questions of vocational awe, emotional labour and burnout within teaching librarians – after all, if people continue to engage with misinformation after we present these ‘rational’ solutions, surely it must just mean that we are not working hard enough to convey the issues at stake?

I love how information literacy has come into the limelight and that people are recognising the importance of studying how information constrains and enables everyday life. However, I’m also wary that some writing on misinformation risks perpetuating tired and outdated models of information use at a moment when we need to be particularly aware of how information is shared, avoided and repurposed across knowledge structures.

Sundin, O., & Francke, H. (2009). In search of credibility: pupils’ information practices in learning environments. Information Research: An International Electronic Journal, 14(4).

Wilson, P. (1983). Second-hand knowledge: An inquiry into cognitive authority. Greenwood Press.

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