Now that the Fall 2021 semester has ended, I have been thinking a lot about how my section of Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP) went. My section was focused on disinformation.
As I was designing the class, I was greatly influenced by this article by Tim Hwang about the war on disinformation. The first article argues that effectively dealing with disinformation requires us to change the way we think about our efforts. Hwang argues that the metaphor of “conflict” doesn’t work for disinformation. He identifies numerous articles and reports about how we can fightdisinformation and how we can win the war on disinformation. This conflict narrative is useful to “rally the troops,” to get people to notice the issue and want to do something about it. There are, however, three major problems with the conflict narrative, Hwang argues. First, these articles portray disinformation as an enemy which is a tangible thing. Disinformation, of course, is not tangible. Because it’s not tangible, we struggle to find the actual battlefield on which to fight. Disinformation is actually many different types of information, each with its own ways of spreading. The conflict narrative obscures the fact that different kinds of disinformation require different kinds of responses. Second, the war metaphor in particular makes us think about chains of command. If we are fighting a war, there must be someone in charge, a general, who will command the armies of soldiers to fight. In this view, we can win the war if we could simply neutralize a few key individuals (or companies). The conflict narrative positions the audience of disinformation as a faceless mass of passive consumers who are at the mercy of the generals in charge. Finally, the conflict narrative looks with nostalgia to a pre-conflict past free of disinformation and promises that if we fight the good fight, we can have a similarly disinformation-free future. This view suggests the possibility of “peace” in which we emerge victorious over disinformation. Hwang writes: “But what would such a victory look like? Presumably it would not be a world without lies, or even a world without coordinated efforts at persuasion. Presumably it would not be the signing of an armistice or the surrender of an enemy army that would mark the end of the conflict.” In other words, the conflict metaphor suggests victory but the vagueness of what the victory might look like suggests that this is a war without end.
Hwang acknowledges that no metaphor is perfect, that all will be wrong in some aspect. But some metaphors are more useful than others. For disinformation, he argues that a climate metaphor is more useful than the conflict metaphor. We can think about the circulation of information online as a climate. Doing so allows us to capture the individual experience of information in a more realistic way. Truth, disinformation, and the use of persuasive tactics are all present in different ratios at all times. He writes: “There is not a ‘front line’ of struggle so much as a hot or cold front passing through a region.” The climate narrative also allows us to capture the notion of human responsibility. Our struggle is not with disinformation itself but is instead with the forces that introduce disinformation into the climate. But perhaps most important, changing the way we think about disinformation changes our responses to it. Thinking of disinformation as pollution in our information environment allows us to think about ways to clean it up. We don’t “defeat” pollution in our physical landscapes but instead clean it up and try to address the source of the pollution.
As I said earlier, I found this reframing of the challenges posed by disinformation very useful as I was planning my section of TWP. Reading Mike Caulfield’s work on info-environmentalism was the inspiration for my approach to engaging students in the clean up effort. Caulfield argues that those of us in higher education should take on the challenge of cleaning up the information environment that the average online user engages with. In other words, we should clean up Facebook, Wikipedia, Google, etc. He calls for an “info-environmentalism curriculum.” Info-environmentalism, in his definition, is the pedagogy of teaching students how to improve our online information environments. An info-environmentalism curriculum provides students with understandings of a variety of issues, including:
How the economic incentives of ad-tech and e-commerce contribute to information pollution
What social media companies can do to address these issues
How marginalized groups often endure abuse when trying to contribute to information spaces
How polarization, bots, corporate money, and state-sponsored action are impacting information quality
How individuals can minimize their own “misinformation footprint” by being more careful about what they post and using basic web research techniques2
Caulfield advocates teaching these issues through action, through engaging students in actual clean up activities. Since TWP is an action-oriented class in which students are trying to make a difference in the world, I thought this would be a perfect way to frame the class. I typically have students engage in two projects in TWP–I design the first one and students design the second one. I started this effort when the topic of my section was climate change. Two years ago, I designed a project in which students contributed to a Snopes-like web site focused on climate change claims. For this Fall’s section of TWP, I designed a similar project but broadened the range of claims that students could investigate.
One of the main goals of TWP is to give students an opportunity to practice their information literacy skills. Our common syllabus lists this learning goal as: “Demonstrate the ability to recognize the need for information to accomplish a specific purpose in a particular context as well as to be able to find, evaluate, use, and properly cite that information.” In the info-environmentalism project, students decide on a claim that they will investigate. They collaboratively write an article for our class web site that determines whether the claim is true or not. In the process of their investigations, I ask students to try to find who first made the claim, identify how widespread the claim is, and articulate the various points of contention related to the claim. These comprise the three main sections of each article (Origin, Prevalence, and Issues and Analysis). They then come to a conclusion about whether the claim is true or not (or true in some contexts but not others, partially true, etc.) and write a summary of their findings. The Summary is the final section to be written but comes first in each article. This provides a TL;DR for anyone searching the Internet for information related to the claim. As the students work through this process, we talk a lot about the nature of sources and how to identify which are likely to be credible and which are not. We talk about credible sources sometimes making mistakes and how that is a different kind of information pollution than disinformation or misinformation or propaganda. We also talk about how we cite sources in online articles such as these and compare it to the ways in which we cite sources in other forms of writing. The conversations are challenging but fruitful.
One of the most challenging aspects of this project is helping students determine the credibility of the information in the sources that they find. I have been teaching information literacy skills long enough to remember when we said things like “The New York Times is a credible source.” This kind of appeal to the authority of a source doesn’t work in today’s world of divided realities (maybe it never worked?). For example, I had a student a few semesters ago who found an instance of CNN writing a horribly misleading headline and used that as evidence that CNN is “fake news” and can never be believed. One of the tools we use to address this challenge is the Mike Caulfield’s SIFT method of determining whether to share information online. The idea is that when we encounter information online, we have a short list of things to do to help us determine the likelihood that what we are reading is true. SIFT stands for Stop, Investigate the source, Find other (better) coverage, Trace to the origin of the information.
The first action to take is that when you encounter information that provokes strong emotion–either positive or negative–Stop! Don’t share that information before you have a chance to look into it further. If you get overwhelmed or lost as you are investigating, stop and go back to the beginning. The main point of this step is that you don’t want to be hasty in sharing information online because you may be polluting our information environment. Once you have stopped before sharing, you should investigate the source of the information you are looking at. You can start by reading the About page of the web site where the information resides. Sometimes the site will tell you enough about themselves that you can stop your investigation here. For example, the About page for The Onion clearly has its tongue in its cheek when it states: “Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.” We know that this site is not publishing actual news stories. But you should also investigate what others are saying about the source. For example, if we look at the Wikipedia entry for The Onion, we see that it is a satirical news site, making up stories in an attempt to ridicule and point out flaws in our society. If you still don’t know whether you should trust the information you are looking at, you should see what others have said about the same information–that is, you should find other (better) coverage. For example, if you come across a story that a particular famous person has died, check to see whether other sources are also reporting that the person has died. The final SIFT action is to trace the information to its origin. When reading the information, look for hyperlinks to other sites where the information came from. Follow those links until you get to the original story. It is suspicious if there are no links in an article or story about particular information. If there are no links, but the article claims the information came from a particular person or a study or some other source, use a search engine to try to find that source. Note that these SIFT actions don’t need to be performed in a linear manner. You can jump around from action to action. The goal is to determine the likelihood that the information you are reading is true before you share the information in our information environment.
As my students used the SIFT method this semester, we encountered some challenges. The biggest one was the existence of data voids. A data void occurs when you do a search that produces few or no results which can happen for a number of reasons. Golebiewski and boyd (sic) identified five reasons for the existence of data voids: breaking news, strategic new terms, outdated terms, fragmented concepts, and problematic queries For example, “Is Joe Biden mentally fit to be president?” is a problematic query because questioning his mental fitness has been used by his opponents to undermine his authority while his proponents have little incentive (other than to fill a data void) to write articles defending his mental fitness. In other words, data voids can be exploited by people peddling disinformation. Data voids are extremely difficult to identify. (I am lucky to work with a fabulous librarian, Christin Wixson, who was able to help me find materials to share with students when we encountered data voids. Golebiewski and boyd’s original report is an excellent resource as is boyd’s 2019 Knight Media Forum presentation about YouTube and data voids.)
The goal of the info-environmentalism project is for students to help clean up our information environment. As I said, they do this by investigating claims and, if they want, posting their findings on our class web site. I always give students the option of not posting their work publicly since, as Caulfield points out in his description of the info-environmentalism curriculum, “marginalized groups often endure abuse when trying to contribute to information spaces.” I never want to force students into such a vulnerable position. I also want to make sure that students are in charge of their own online activity and requiring public submission of their work takes that agency away from them. When I have used this info-environmentalism project in the past, nearly every group has chosen to publish their work and put their names on it. This semester, only one group decided to publish their work on our site and within that group, one student decided to remain anonymous. I don’t know if this is because our online discourse has continued to devolve and so students feel less and less safe posting this kind of work online or because I have done a better(?) job of explaining the possible abuse that they might face. Since this is the first semester in which most students have decided not to post publicly, I don’t have enough information yet to figure out the reasons. But it’s something I’m paying attention to.
Despite not posting publicly and, therefore, not actually cleaning up the information environment with this project, I think this project has helped students minimize their individual “misinformation footprint” (as Caulfield calls it) so that they are not sharing information pollution (or at least not as much as before engaging in the project). I will continue to use this project but I may rethink the way we talk about public presentation of the work. Perhaps the articles should be published anonymously by default unless a group wants to put their names on their article or a group decides they don’t want their work published even anonymously. Something to think about because I know these student-created web sites can have an impact. A group of my Communication and Media Studies students published articles about TV shows for an Analyzing Television class I taught five years ago. Despite having no new content for more than five years, that site still gets 200-250 hits per week.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.