How poor information literacy affects our political environment and country’s safety
Lisa Yeung and Mengting Chang
NBC News anchors watched in horror as protestors charged into the United States Capitol Building. Shocked correspondents desperately surveyed the scene as the uneasy population at the scene pushed back and forth, soon breaking through windows and storming the interior. The crowd shook with fury, many believing that the electoral results were a sham and Joe Biden had cheated his way to capturing the presidency. “Stop the Steal!” yelled a young woman wearing a black jacket. “VP Mike Pence is a TRAITOR!” exclaimed the sign of an older man, “TRAITOR” of course underlined in red for emphasis.
Those that allowed themselves to be interviewed, angrily blurted out words and phrases. Yet they all expressed common ideas— liberals and Democrats had stolen the election! Republicans and conservatives had to overturn the results by protesting! Some expressed even more extreme ideas—Democrats were all secretly criminals! Some believe this was a preventable incident in American history.
“With the capitol, they just believed in what President Trump said and rebelled. If you’re misinformed you can cause harm to others, and [work] for a bad cause,” explains 12th grade student Ihriel Reyes-Orona.
The protests had been coordinated on forums and media on the web. Forbes reports that the attacks were planned on conservative websites such as social network Parler and TheDonald, and even on general social media such as Twitter. Misinformation had been allowed to spread around with little rebuke from site owners, save for some minor acknowledgements that certain political and election-themed posts were inaccurate. Theories, such as QAnon, expressed ideas of Democratic politicians committing heinous crimes against young children including trafficking. These theories are prominent online, with a poll from data firm Morning Consult showing that 25 percent of the whole population currently believes in the QAnon theory. Even the 45th President, Donald Trump added fire to the flames, refusing to disavow the QAnon theory and holding a rally in which he lied about Democratic voter fraud. However, Nandana Venkitesh (10) claims that another factor may be at play.
“It’s hard to think of one cause. It would be very easy to pin it on one person, whether that’s the president or any other politician,” states Venkitesh, “I think it’s more just a consequence of the way we set up our information environment to be; most of it is social media. It is very easy to put yourself in an echo chamber. The people contributing to that echochamber are less of a factor than the fact that the echo chamber exists.”
Venkitesh brings an interesting point. Many internet users are guilty of sharing and spreading information that may not be verified. Much like someone who is unable to read is called “illiterate,” these users lack “information literacy” or “info literacy.” The American Library Association officially defines “information literate” as being able to find needed information, break it down, and make use of it. There are many ways to stay properly informed and one of them is to scrutinize the information you receive.
Reyes-Orona advises that “If you see an article on the Internet, you shouldn’t just go over the heading, you have to look into detail. If you see incongruencies or contradictions in the article, you shouldn’t go into that article.” She continues, “believing everything you hear, or just leaning into one political party or news source [shows a lack of information literacy].”
Students overwhelmingly expressed shock and sadness at the events on Capitol Hill.
Priyal Badala (12) stated “I was actually very surprised and embarrassed at the same time. I thought we were a high class country and people actually respected their government and didn’t go around barging into Capitol Hill.”
Reyes-Orona explains why diversity in perspectives may also be a factor at play in spreading the misinformation that led to the mob’s decisions.
“I feel so bad,” Orona expressed. “It’s because of social media, now that we get to see all kinds of opinions, people are more easily misinformed, because there are too many sources of information.”
Most students interviewed shared the view that Ashlee Babbitt, a woman who had been shot by police after breaking through a window and into a segment of the Capitol Building, would still be alive if she had better information literacy and not been exposed to misinformation.
Badala stated “Yeah, I feel like if she wouldn’t have taken the first thing she saw to heart and if she actually researched more, she wouldn’t have gone to Capitol Hill, broken a window, and gotten shot by police. She should have actually thought about what she was doing.”
However, Alex Kim (12) disagreed. “I feel like yeah, she probably would be. But at the same time, I feel like those people… they believe anything they read. Something else could happen… They’re gullible. Ignorant. They don’t want to believe the truth.”
Views on the right path to take to correct the poor level of info literacy differed. Badala expressed her belief in educating others on info literacy.
“We should tell everyone how to find good reputable sources and what it means. We should teach people how to find good authors and tell them they shouldn’t rely on one source, they should look at multiple sources and form a decision on that.”
Another student, Saanvi Agarwal (11), agreed on education, but opted for a more independent approach. “I think the best solution is for everyone to educate themselves and understand where the information comes from. I think that reading a large variety of articles on that topic instead of just one is a big step towards that. I also think that having some guidelines towards misinformation… to help understand that ‘hey, this information is not validated but this one is’… is really helpful.”
As the conversation moved forward, the discussion turned to censorship of the online sources that had misled those with low info literacy. Many wondered if it was a good move for Twitter to remove President Trump, long known for his presence and statements online, from their platforms.
Agarwal felt that it was acceptable. “I personally think that [Twitter is] a separate company and they’re not part of the government so as far as I’m concerned, they could choose their users and who has access to their platform. So if they feel that this is someone who is hurting their company or platform, they’re allowed to stop or remove them.”
Venkitesh agreed. “Twitter, or other social media companies, as private companies, have a responsibility to moderate what is on their platform and I don’t think that equates to the removal of free speech.”
Like many Americans, students and staff at AHS are influenced by social media in at least some way. In the modern world, where opinions and information are easily accessed and publicized through mediums like social media, the importance of info literacy has become more significant and the events at the Capitol prove no less.
When asked to rate how info literate her peers at AHS are, Agarwal gave a fairly positive account.
“On a scale from 1 to 5, I would say it’s about a 3 or 4 because I’ve worked with a lot of really smart students in this school and they’re really capable of understanding what’s true, what’s not, and also how to vet out a situation,” she explains. “They are very understanding of the fact that there’s two sides to every story and what other perspective you might need to take into account.”
Though this is merely a single impression, it does give some insight as to how well-informed students at AHS really are. Think about yourself and if you are contributing to your own awareness.