Barbara Fister (Gustavus Adolphus College and Project Information Literacy) has authored an essay, “Lizard People in the Library,” for Project Information Literacy’s Provocation Series. In this piece Fister tackles the role of information literacy educators in the age of “fake news,” QAnon, and other conspiracy theories.
Fister provides an overview of polarization, filter bubbles, and propaganda networks, and the current “divided reality” we find ourselves in:
How could so many people believe things that are obviously untrue? Why don’t kids learn about this in school? Shouldn’t being able to navigate information and separate truth from lies be a standard part of education?
It is. It has been, for a long time. It clearly hasn’t worked.
Fister describes reasons for the failure of information literacy, including “the low social status of teachers and librarians,” a lack of consistency in information literacy throughout students’ years of education, the devaluing of the humanities, the quick pace of technological and media change, the rise of digital culture, and the lack of a specific place for information literacy within school curriculum: “It’s everywhere, and nowhere. It’s everyone’s job, but nobody’s responsibility. In many cases, the people who care about it the most have had their jobs felled by the austerity axe.”
Despite librarians’ and other educators’ promotion of independent research, critical thinking, and lifelong learning, Fister points to the results of Project Information Literacy’s 2016 lifelong learning study as indicative of the problem: respondents overwhelmingly indicated that undergraduate research “failed to prepare them to ask questions of their own.” The author reflects that classroom learning tends to focus on producing papers, reports, or projects rather than focusing on how media and information ecosystems “make[s] choices about which messages to promote and how those choices intersect with political messaging and the social engineering of interest groups.” In fact, Fister points out that inadequate information literacy education might be more harmful than none at all, and that “the slogan ‘research it yourself’ has become the empowering antidote to elitist expertise.”
So, with the problem laid out so clearly, what does the author suggest information literacy librarians and educators do? Fister cautions against assignment strictures that “explicitly forbid students from using information that doesn’t pass through traditional gatekeeping channels,” stating that,
we need to teach students “how information ‘works’” — not just how to find and select information as if it’s a market good to be produced and consumed, but rather to understand the social and economic contexts that influence how information is created and circulated.
Suggestions include using journalism’s framing theory, forming teaching practice communities with experts in intersecting information systems, allowing students to bring their own expertise and experience on navigating information to the classroom, and to emphasize that not “every exchange of information must be financialized” but that there are more nuances and ethics involved in sharing information.