Information Illiteracy in the Internet Age

Someone on my Facebook feed posted this video of a “thugs” stopping an ambulance at the cancelled Trump rally. There was no additional evidence or facts. Just a video of black people “stopping” an ambulance and the assumption that there was someone sick in there or they were on their way to a sick person. Which may or may not be true. So I looked it up.

The only sources I could find were right wing, conservative media outlets which, by their very nature, are bias and terrible sources for news. So I am left still in the dark around what was going on in that video which I will not be sharing.

The reason why I am sharing this story however is because it dawned on me that the person who shared the video and the people who liked and commented on it, likely did no research and if they had they would have served up on of those bias sites as proof that these people were thugs and hurting some nameless infirm person. Which long story short is today’s topic: In 2016 we are flooded with information but most people are information illiterate.

Like most things centered around reading and digesting information, the concept of information literacy is an academic one because prior to the modern times we live in, information was funneled through very limited means. Now, we all have free access to a wealth of information but not many people really know how to vet it.

Information literacy is a set of skills that help you find and evaluate information. It is more than being able to Google something (although that is some part of it), it is also being able to look at a source and determine whether or not it is reliable.

This isn’t a terribly important skill set when dealing with something like celebrity gossip. It doesn’t really matter whether or not so and so is really getting a divorce or is pregnant. Those facts or fallacies do not impact anyone’s actual lives but there are many cases that have much more impact.

The lack of information literacy shows strongest in the way that we share things on social media. Sometimes it’s just a silly viral story about something gross someone found in their fast food. Sometimes its misinformation about refuges or dangerous health “advice”.

Because people do not take the time to engage in simple steps to check what they are sharing, they fuel these sorts of viral hurricanes of bad information. They can’t tell opinion from fact in many cases and treat them both as if they are interchangeable.

This is happening not because people are dumb but because they simply do not have any background in information literacy. We have been conditioned to believe that media, be it TV, newspaper, or internet, has already done the leg work for us which is why the joke that “it’s on the internet, it must be true” is still relevant. Because so many people haven’t realized that this is NOT true!

The nature of the 24 hour news cycle means that there is a lot of information out there and a lot of it is nonsense. A lot of it is opinion masquerading as fact or entertainment pretending to be news. It’s awesome that people have so much access now but the cost of that is that you have to do your own legwork.

It is irresponsible to just post things blindly. It is up to all of us to take a few lessons in information literacy. But for starters, just make it a habit to question things before you hit share. If the story is too salacious or fits too perfectly into one narrative, it’s probably not the whole tale. Real life is messy and complicated, it doesn’t fit perfectly into a 250 word article.

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Why You Should Stop Saying IRL

Where your friends live piechart from Facebook

“In Real Life” shortened to IRL is a term that has become common on the internet to describe events that happen offline. “She’s one of my IRL friends,” is something you may read and not give a second thought to but if you value your community online you should stop using that phrase. It devalues your relationships and helps promote the idea that the bonds we form with our online friends aren’t as “real” or important as those that we can physically touch. I have replaced IRL with “in the wild” because IRL is ableist and judgmental.

The major difference between your online and offline interactions is that offline, you have less control over who you meet. You can’t control who you see walking down the street or the coffee shop. Whereas online, you can pick and choose your interactions in a variety of ways. You don’t have to go to every forum, you don’t have to respond to every message. Offline, it’s a jungle out there hence, in the wild.

There is this strange belief that what happens online is somehow less important than what happens in a face to face, physical setting. That somehow there’s a magical force field that keeps people from forming complex relationships with true feelings just because there are screens involved. Primarily it’s because the ubiquitous nature of digital communications has happened at lightning speed and humanity just hasn’t caught up to the change.

To be fair, it’s not a perfect medium for communication. Most of the nuances in our communication is nonverbal and that tends not to come off in a digital landscape but that’s not the largest problem in communication via digital means. The larger problem is that people simply don’t treat it as a way to really connect with people.

This is evident in the slew of reports like this one that indicate that people lead double lives online. That their online world is a perfect representation of what they think they should be instead of who they are. This idea that you “shouldn’t put your personal business on Facebook” leads to people creating online personas that share their names and faces but none of their hardships.

Which is, in a way, fair.

Our social media profiles are populated by close friends and causal acquaintances. Just like in the wild. You know a mix of people, some of which you will share the fact that you’re struggling with a medical issue or fears about the future but most of which you’ll just talk about your kids finishing the school year or vacation plans.

That doesn’t mean that what you see isn’t real life. It’s just the front facing portion of their life. Just like when you go to the grocery store and the cashier asks about your day, you don’t tell them you’re worried about the results of your HIV test even if that’s what’s currently on your mind. You tell your friends that. The problem isn’t that these front facing profiles exist, the problem comes when there isn’t an outlet for the reality.

It’s not that people lead a Pinterest perfect life, it’s that they don’t have an outlet for their everyday lives. Think of the perfect housewife who drinks or the prom queen with bulimia. People hiding who they are has been happening forever and is a function of being a social human. People need other people that they can relax around, friends that they can truly be themselves around. For some people, their friends exist online.

This happens for a variety of reasons. It happens because some people are incredibly introverted and just can’t deal with people for very long. It happens because someone may live in a place where not many people share their interests. It happens because someone may be disabled and simply cannot get out of the house much. Or they get out a lot and have people all over the planet they want to keep in communication with.

No matter what the reason for building these online friendships, they are real friendships. What happens online in the communities and forums that you find yourself in is your real life. The private messages where people confide in you or the groups where you may find yourself giving advice are real. The people on the other side of that screen are real. Your feelings for them and their feelings for you are real.

Not everyone you meet online is going to be your best friend. That’s true in the same way that not everyone you meet in the wild is going to be your best friend or even a good friend. It’s true that people lie and manipulate others online but it’s also true that they do that in the wild. People are going to be awful to other people no matter where you go. Whether it’s face to face or not. The internet didn’t make them that way, they are just that way.

By dismissing these relationships we are telling people that the feelings they feel don’t matter. We are falling into extremely ableist ideals because we are pushing a form of interaction that not everyone can participate in due to disability and limitations. We are ignoring the complex realities of many people and pushing everyone into the same box.

By saying that online relationships aren’t just as important we’re dismissing the needs of people who can’t be their true selves for safety reasons, we are telling them that it’s more important that they form unsafe connections with their neighbors than turning to a safe online community where they can be themselves.

By saying that they don’t matter you are telling the harrowed young mother that the group of people who talked her through her 3 AM feeding trouble and were there when she was in the deep pits of PPD are less important and meaningful than the friend she knows from work who hasn’t spoken to her since she had the baby.

The online world isn’t just geeks arguing over the more nuanced possibilities in their fandoms or teenagers sending each other snapchats. It is a varied and rich environment filled with all kinds of people. Some of them are silly and some of them are serious. Just like your everyday life.

The biggest indicator of whether an online relationship is real and meaningful is how you feel about it. If you go online and post with the idea that it doesn’t matter or that people who take the time to message you or comment don’t really care, then you will not form those bonds. This isn’t happening because your online interactions don’t matter, it’s because you don’t value them. You cannot build meaningful relationships if one half doesn’t care. This is true in the wild and it’s true online.

In short, if you want to make friends, you must first be a friend yourself.

I have online friends who have supported me through thick and thin. I have friends in the wild who have done the same. All of these people are my real friends. Everything that happens online and off is my real life. It all matters.

Doing Nothing At All Doesn’t Work

photo by Donyae Coles

Toy gun in Gettysburg shop Photo by Donyae Coles

The problem with the gun debate is that both sides treat it as a zero sum game. There has to be a blanket right answer that solves the problem. Anything less isn’t worth it but blanket solutions hurt the people who aren’t doing anything wrong. So instead of investing in any solutions we do nothing at all and accept that there’s nothing to be done. This is wrong.

The fact of the matter is that there are things that can be done but there’s no one solution to the problem. There’s no one right answer that is going to fix the issue and make terrible mass shootings a remnant of our violent past. That’s not a reason to just accept the murder of innocent people.

The idea that there is nothing anyone can do is the greatest lie the devil ever told. There is always something that can be done. It may be hard and not everyone is going to be happy but you know what? You can’t please everyone all of the time.

This blog suggested that we just learn to take care of each other better, to notice people more and go back to a time where people really looked after one another. The suggestion is that we should reach out to those we see being, well, creepy. Short of that, there’s nothing anyone can do. A sweet sentiment but terribly ill conceived.

For one, this is terribly dangerous advice for women in particular. That’s how you get stalkers. For two, it ignores that mass shootings have been going on a lot longer than this age of social media. The first mass shootings where the public was greatly in danger began in the 1960s and we’ve just carried on since then. Long before computers began to isolate people. It’s not technology’s fault.

There’s not any one root cause for mass shootings in the United States of America. Like most other things, the issue is multifaceted with many root causes. It’s not criminals, it’s not technology, it’s not the lack of Jesus, it’s a lot of things and stopping it calls for a lot of solutions.

Do we need stricter gun control?* Yes. Do we need better access and less stigma for mental health?** Yes. Do we need to address the culture in this country that creates such violent and disfranchised people? Yes.

Will correcting any one of these issues on their own solve the problem? No. Because it is not any single issue that caused the problem.

If your house is falling apart because of a leaky roof that you let alone too long, just fixing the roof isn’t going to save your house. It is still falling apart there just aren’t any new leaks. If you want to fix your house you have to repair the damage that was done in the time the roof leaked. You have to rip up floors and tear down walls. Lay down fresh hardwood, really do the work. You can’t just throw on some fresh paint and walk away.

Sticker gun control is the roof. It’s a start but it won’t save us. The other issues are everything else that is going to make our house safe and inhabitable again. It will take time. It will take work and sure it would be far easier to do nothing at all but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing at all.

It’s a good house. We all have to live in it. Let’s fix the roof and then get started on these other issues before the whole thing falls in. Mass shootings are a thing that is happening right now. They are part of our history. They do not have to be part of the future. This keeps happening because we are letting it happen.

We are letting it happen by continuing not to move an inch. We are letting it happen by constantly trying to deflect the focus to other issues and pushing strawmen arguments. We are letting it happen by doing nothing at all.

We can stop this by simply starting to do something. It may take ten years, it may take 20 but if we start actually working on putting measures in place, by admitting that we DO have a problem with guns and that something in our culture is inherently flawed and needs addressing then we can stop this.

*Gun control is not short hand for ban all guns. No one is actually suggesting that the government come and take all of anyone’s weapons. What gun control may call for is stricter policies regarding the type and how many of a weapon is available as well as more oversight for the guns in circulation currently.

**Mental health isn’t actually a factor in most mass shootings but it comes up so often that it needs to be addressed and quite honestly it won’t hurt.