Information Literacy: Do Your Civic Duty Before the Election

Image: Karen Walsh
Image: Karen Walsh

I’ve noticed a thing or two about the politics on my Facebook as we round the bend to the end of this election cycle, and I’ve had some interesting conversations lately.

One of the things I’ve noticed is a distinct age gap in candidate choice in my life. I had a conversation this morning with someone in their late 60s asking me about facts they had heard in the news. I responded with questions about where the facts came from and had the person independently checked what they were asking me about. This slowed down the barrage of questions. I followed that by saying I refuse to look only at one source for facts because there’s so much information out there and, to be honest, I don’t trust anyone’s interpretation of facts. I continued by responding unless I had the primary source of the facts, I didn’t feel confident to comment. The person simply said, “Well, then I guess that’s a lot of work that you do.”

Yes. That is what being informed is today. It’s a lot of work. I don’t read just one source. I don’t trust just one voice. If we look at the divide that we have in our public narratives and the lack of willingness to accept other opinions, that divide is coming directly from blindly trusting too many sources.

We can argue today that the disrespect people have for the office of the presidency began with the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. We can add to that the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton and the media’s reporting of those. However, in both those cases, the media outlets were legitimized by journalistic ethics and integrity.

As a writer for a website/blog, I work hard to preserve those same ethics. Many of our GeekMom/GeekDad writers have journalism backgrounds but many do not. This lack of formal training is true of the internet as a whole. Across this great landscape of 1s and 0s, people have the opportunity to freely express their opinions or to write think pieces. The joy of this magical place of information called the internet is the democratization of information. In her article, “The Google Effect: Googling, Blogging, Wikis and the Flattening of Expertise,” Tara Brabazon writes,

Importantly, Google’s popularity does not facilitate or encourage the discipline and structure that many of our students require. The difficulty is that information – through Google – is seen to be both abundant and cheap. Because of this rapid ranking and return, ‘anyone’ can manage it. Actually, the abilities required to assess information are difficult and costly to obtain. … Everything can be learnt from the Web, except how to use it.

Despite her condescending attitude towards the internet as a place filled with muckrakers and idiots engaging in unimportant personal conversations, Brabazon makes a valid point about the need to focus on appropriate literacy for these new modalities. More voices have been given entrance to a platform for signal boosting. More voices mean that change can occur faster. No longer do the doors of expression require the keys of formality held by only a few. No longer can we assume that the individuals providing the information are doing it with the best of intentions and subject to a code of ethics.

This proliferation of information and sources is a good thing. It does, however, require citizens to engage in a new level of proactive participation in the process. The problem, as Brabazon discusses ad nauseum, is that this freedom of expression brings with it a need to spend more time focusing on how to find the best information. For Brabazon, this obviously means within the traditional notions of authority such as libraries and academicians. However, that is not what it needs to mean. In terms of appropriately enacting our civic duties, it means something entirely different.

Voting is a right. However, it is also a privilege. It is a privilege that not every country provides its citizens. As such, especially with so much information being thrown at us, this means that we have a particular responsibility as voters to be literate and to educate ourselves. Being good citizens in this evolving informational quagmire involves work. It involves being active participants in the knowledge gathering process as opposed to being passive participants.

However, ensuring that we have both earned the privilege of voting and enacted our right responsibly takes more effort than it previously took. As such, I think that over the next few days, Americans need to ask themselves the following questions about the information they are reading and their responses to it:

1. What is this author’s authority? Authority, or the notion that someone’s message has validity, has changed in the last ten years. Traditional notions of granting authority, the kinds that come with hegemonic societal position, are now appropriately challenged. Resources reflect the writers’ expertise and credibility but that no longer needs to be purely academic or formal, personal experience also counts. However, we need to keep in mind that personal experience is only one type of authority in the same way that we need to keep in mind that a PhD is only one type of authority.

2. What community is this conversation coming from? Communities of scholars, researchers, and professionals share information with each other. These conversations lead to new insights that can change perspectives and interpretations. Looking at these groups simply with snide monikers such as “interest groups” or “protesters” or “lobbyists” means that we devalue those conversations when perhaps we need them just as much or more than before. It is important to recognize that these conversations can come from face-to-face interactions or social media interactions because the notions of authority change the way and place we share these ideas.

3. How was this information gathered? This question is perhaps the most important of all. Understanding the different ways information is presented and how that impacts the perception of its viability matters. Blogs aren’t all personal experience. News isn’t all factual. Looking into the source of information becomes the key to being educated. Being able to distinguish between good evidence and bad evidence, between facts and opinions, between good sources and bad sources, this is the key to being a good citizen.

The internet’s creation of this beautiful expanse of words and thoughts comes with it a greater responsibility than we ever knew. As we make decisions that impact not just our futures, but our children’s futures we need to be more attentive to the information upon which we base these decisions.

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