Provocation: Digital literacy and Vulnerability

When I initially sat down to write this provocation, I came up just a little blank. Of course students need to learn internet and information literacy. Of course we’re coming up short. Of course we see inconsistencies among students, implying that people across the socio-economic spectrum have different levels of access to web literacy. To put it bluntly; I struggled to come up with an observation (or a provocation) that wasn’t just reinforcement of the fact that fake news is bad.

So, I arrived here. I want to address a few separate issues here. My hope is to come up with questions as I write down my thoughts.

  1. The issue of human vulnerability
  2. The question of internet literacy, academia, and pedagogy
  3. The unspoken systemic issues at the heart of the disparities in the above

I also want to note that, although I don’t focus on it here, I was deeply interested in the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I want to draw attention to it despite my lack of direct engagement.

1. These readings overwhelmingly focus on a nexus of problems that the internet presents its users, but don’t substantially unpack why users are so vulnerable to those problems.

In college, I took a course about thinking, judgement, and decision making. This class, ostensibly about psychology, functioned as a crash course in the fallibility of human thought. We call these fallibilities “heuristics,” a term laden with a sort of delightful irony—the word ‘heuristic’ comes from the Greek εὑρίσκω, which means “I discover” or “I find.” It shares a root with “eureka.” At their core, heuristics are cognitive short-cuts developed over millennia of evolution. In a certain way, heuristics are brilliant, incredible facets of the human mind. They allow us to make effective decisions and judgements in as little time as possible. Yet, these heuristics in no way evolved to manage the onslaught of information that we encounter in the contemporary age.

When I think about that class in conjunction with this week’s readings, I first think my professor, Barry Schwartz, who made a name for himself giving a series of TedTalks and lectures about the paradox of choice—the idea that the more choices people get, the more paralyzed they become. I think about the fact that the sheer quantity of information—the sheer volume of sources on the internet—renders our ability to discern between sources inert. There are simply too many options; the human mind must be overwhelmed or paralyzed. So, how do we resolve this paralysis? Unfortunately, I suspect that this is where other heuristics come into play. Confirmation bias and the availability heuristic seem to be the most likely candidates. The former pushes us to choose sources that support our existing beliefs, and the latter pushes us to overestimate the likelihood of certain events or ideas based on our personal attachment or memory of them. Pile on the backfire effect (wherein people react to evidence that undermines their beliefs by clinging more firmly to those beliefs) and the self-relevance effect (wherein information that pertains to ourselves and our beliefs is more easily retained than information that is not immediately relevant), and we have a perfect storm of impossibility.

In other words, even given internet literacy, it is incredibly difficult to overcome the cognitive biases that help us make choices, retain information, and establish beliefs.

2. Given this, I found myself perseverating on the impossibility of teaching effective internet and information literacy; we’re essentially attempting to override cognitive short-cuts that are hard-wired into our brains. On the one hand, we absolutely should be teaching children how to spot problematic sources or sources that exploit cognitive biases. On the other, there’s something so tragically cynical about the fact that we have to teach young children to approach all information with skepticism rather than wonder. Of course we should be using systems like SIFT (effectively a heuristic itself) to simplify the process of identifying legitimate and misleading information.

When I teach my students how to write a paper, I devote two weeks (at least) to source finding and research. I walk them through the differences between an academic source, a news-source, fake news, blogs, opinions, and so on. I expect them to learn the difference between spurious and legitimate sources, but I also find myself cringing a little at the implications. I seem to be placing the onus of truth and truth-finding (and thus, in a way, the act of “constructing authority”) on my students rather than on the world at large.

My immediate response is that I hope to live in a world where people care about the information they absorb. That is, I do think that digital literacy is essential—but I’m not sure what the difference is between digital literacy and critical thinking. In other words, I find myself wondering what the difference is between digital and text-based literacy. I find myself suspecting that when we talk about one, we’re essentially talking about the other. Obviously, the modalities and methodologies are different (a tweet is not a handwritten note, after all, and a painting has a different provenance than a doctored or stolen photo), but the sense of it is the same; applying critical thinking to the information we absorb.

3. Finally, I want to briefly address the fact that, although one of these readings discussed race and socio-economic factors in coding and digital artifacts, none addressed the gap in digital literacy across the socio-economic spectrum. I am not an expert here, but I do want to draw attention to this lacuna.

Across the board, research has found persistent disparities in digital literacy across socio-economic strata. Lower-income students, for example, are limited to less expensive devices that do not enable simultaneous tab examination, leading them to engage deeply with only one source at a time rather than a broad spectrum. Likewise, internet access is inconsistent in lower-income households—a fact that has become aggressively apparent during the pandemic

danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and visiting professor at NYU, noted in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review that “The internet is reinforcing already existing structural divides.” That is, new technologies amplify extant problems, especially in situations where parents don’t have the literacy (digital or text) “interpret what’s true and what’s not. They don’t even necessarily have the critical apparatus to ask the right questions about what they see” (reading this quote, I find myself asking what the “right” questions are, anyway).

So, given all these thoughts, I find myself asking a few questions:

  1. What are the heuristics (or mental short-cuts) we use when sifting through the massive amount of information online?
  2. When you think about the way you interact with the internet, do you encounter feelings of abundance? Paralysis? How might digital literacy engage with each of those feelings? (I’m aware this is a “bad question”—a biased one. I still think it’s important.)
  3. Is digital literacy different from text-based literacy? Different from critical thinking?
  4. 4. How much responsibility do we have in generating plans for literacy? How much responsibility do our students have in reproducing or producing information?
  5. How can we close the gap in literacy across the socio-economic spectrum? (This is, I suspect, unanswerable—but if we could dream/dare/etc., how might we BEGIN?)
  6. What are the results we want to see in such a plan?
  7. Finally, who is digital literacy for?

4 thoughts on “Provocation: Digital literacy and Vulnerability”

  1. Emma,
    To begin with, I wanted to thank you for your provocation. I wanted to address your question number 5.- “How can we close the gap in literacy across the socio-economic spectrum?”
    You definitely made a point in the fact that these readings place an undue stress on the Internet as a platform and in my opinion do not address accessibility issues rooted in socio-economic backgrounds that happen in non-digital realities. Mike Caulfield’s statement that the internet is the biggest propaganda machine yet ever seen and also the best fact-checker is particularly telling of this approach. I am not implying with this Warzel’s article or Caulfield’s volume are wrong in their scopes. My intend with this intervention is to think the Internet as an extension of a non-digital network of actants (made of agents, readers, and claims) and to look beyond exclusively digital scopes to find additional answers about fake news. Despite I appreciate Cauldfield’s systematic analysis and sets of tools for self-fact-checking, I wonder if one can undertake additional research to investigate which other nexus enable the spreading of fake news. Namely, a closer look at physical environments. I have the hypothesis web illiteracy and the internet as an archive is just part of the problem, since by the time many readers get to access that digital archive (and I concede the fact that people’s use of the Internet per day is growing exponentially) there is already a set of fake news pieces at play that shapes their perspectives, in other words, they are already biased by the information they acquired on physical and social environments and subsequentially this shapes the sites where they are looking for the information. Despite it might be a hyperbolized example of the problem I think the conspiracy group Qanon is an epitome of this issue. In that context I feel Cauldfield’s and Wazel’s approaches come “from above” and their solutions come very late in the “pipeline”, as opposed to a very much needed –and of course more time consuming– socio-economic research from below.

  2. Great post and provocative thoughts, Emma — I’m particularly drawn towards your challenge that there may be a problematic assumption in thinking that digital literacy is any different from more generalized critical thinking.

    Along those lines, I want to tell a story here that pushes towards answering some of your questions. In the lead up to November 2016, I tended to get riled up pretty easily. (I wonder why…) One day, I came across a post on Jimmy Buffett’s website wherein he endorsed Donald Trump for President, saying that having traveled the world as he (Buffett) had, he believed that DT could make the US that special “one particular harbor” (a quote from a fan favorited Buffett tune) that it had once been.

    You might not know Buffett’s work, but growing up in the Gulf of Mexico region as I did, it was inescapable in my youth, and I had quite a phase. (If we can ever any of us have a drink together, let’s put Buffett on the agenda.) I don’t listen to it much anymore, but I tend to still understand and respect who he is as a cultural figure. I was shocked by this website. He was a long-dedicated Democrat, and Trump’s nastiness was so antithetical to his personality and brand as I understood it. Not that it meant much, but I wrote him off. Fast forward to the end of 2016 — I’m reading up like crazy on how the disappointment of Election night happened, and read in Hilary’s book about a fundraiser that Buffett and his wife held for her. Immediately, in a flash, I knew it: I had fallen for fake news. I’ve since found that website, and the signs are ABUNDANTLY clear that it’s crap.

    Maybe it’s hubristic to have been so shocked; I guess it was. I think about this all the time, though. I fancy my digital literacy quite high, especially having had a day job for several years working for a private investigation firm (less cool than it sounds, but certainly heavy on the conducting and assessing of Internet research). I think about it all the time as I’m shocked by how folks fall for such obviously poorly organized b.s. they find on the Internet.

    I share this only to share my own perspective in trying to understand digital literacy now, that of course we teach “confirmation bias” and “lateral research” and so on, but those heuristics as Emma puts it are deep within is and just cause we can name everything doesn’t mean it ain’t still ticking away.

  3. Thanks for your provocation, Emma – lots of valuable thoughts to mull over here, and I appreciate your willingness to blur the lines between critical and digital literacy. I figured I would expand on Stephen’s and Ricardo’s comments above by introducing my own personal experience working with students on their digitally literate practices in my English 2150: Writing 2 course. Since the Baruch writing curriculum emphasizes multimodal composition in the second section of its first-year writing program, I’ve actually taken efforts to facilitate reflexive engagement with questions surrounding digital literacy by asking my students to write a digital literacy narrative to kick off the semester. In doing so, I take efforts to motivate my students to reflect on their experiences with the ideologically constructed features of new media technology by considering how they’ve learned to gradually acclimate to the design and discourse of these digital platforms. Here’s a snippet of my prompt:

    “This assignment asks you to narratively explore your digital identity as a reader, writer, and communicator, analyzing how you have learned to utilize new media technology to effectively discover, evaluate, exchange, and create knowledge in ways that are meaningful to you. In turn, you should contextualize your digital literacy practices in terms of two or more digital tools or platforms, examining the rhetorical ways in which you have learned to navigate and engage with those mediums over time.”

    I later prompt them to identify a series of digital skills in connection with these two tools or platforms, encouraging them to write about these competencies in ways that pin down checkpoints in the growth of their digital literacy as a repertoire of critical online practices. In this respect, one could argue that digital literacy certainly intersects with the big tent of critical literacy, but it also in my mind carries with it certain multimodal and interactive practices that are not often covered by more traditional, text-based critical thinking skills. For instance, I think it’s key for students to recognize that their routine engagement with social media discourse and design (among other digital contexts) enters somewhat of an algorithmic feedback loop as soon as the platform itself begins tracking and reacting to their behavior in subtle, often invisible ways. I consider it a newfound challenge then for instructors to support students as they begin to foster more critically interactive encounters with the algorithms that underwrite these platforms. And I tend to think that the more static conditions of traditional critical literacy don’t necessarily account for the dynamic means by which information and knowledge gets distributed to students based on these algorithms. Some of the more basic close-reading skills still inflect the process of locating and evaluating information in responsibly credible ways, but the core difference to me therefore lies in the notion that the dynamic properties of the process now often shift under our students’ feet as soon as they set out to build the knowledge base necessary for credibly informed lines of inquiry.

    Again, though, lots to consider here. I think the line between critical literacy and digital literacy requires disambiguation on our part as instructors, otherwise it’s all the more difficult to name and explain these important differences to learners as they begin to unpack their own digital heuristics as online researchers and multimodal composers.

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