Humans, Information, and Behavior
People by and large are not stupid (despite what some might claim based on the state of the world). But people are easily misinformed, and we tend to make decisions based on our feelings. As trained librarians, we know this from our studies of Human Information Behavior, and as teachers, we know it from our studies of human and child psychology. But this is not a great way to make decisions. Indeed, relying on our “gut feeling” is the completely wrong path to take when it comes to making the most logical choice.
What I find particularly scary is that a lot of the time, we don’t even know we are being manipulated. In Patrick Wilson’s Second-Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, Wilson brings up the point that ads might cognitively influence us without our knowing, even though we do not think of them as being cognitive authorities (15).
Just Axe a Student
As one example, I work in a middle school, and a few years back, we had a problem with boys using Axe body spray. They would show up to school reeking of it, and then would constantly spray themselves with it all day, to the point that there were students with breathing problems who were getting sick. Why did the boys do this? The advertising was running pretty much constantly and overtly implied that using Axe brought the ladies running. Even though it seemed to be having the opposite effect in school, that didn’t decrease the use of Axe in the school. When the commercials stopped airing as often, the use of Axe went down.
If you had asked those students whether they thought spraying themselves with deodorant would attract the opposite sex, they would probably laugh at the idea. But they still did it.
That was a single ad campaign that relied on watching commercials. When we’re connected 24/7 and consume a larger amount of media than at any other point in human history, how are we being influenced by the influx of information?
Right now, we are living in very strange and historic times. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of anger, and a lot of misinformation. That’s why I truly believe education–and specifically information literacy instruction–is the most important tool we have.
In the mid-1990s, before the World Wide Web was commonplace, I could not imagine a more important subject than English. English instruction is all about critical thinking, analysis of language, and learning to communicate clearly. It’s about engaging with ideas and sharing those ideas with others. I became an English teacher to raise the quality of our democracy by helping create a literate and informed citizenry.
Over the past several decades, access to information creation and distribution tools has become ubiquitous. I started to think maybe there was an even more important area of learning for students than language arts. Earning my school librarian certification helped solidify that belief. The sheer quantity of information consumption facilitated by the rise of easy online access has created a new crisis. There is more incorrect information available than ever. As it is commercialized and weaponized, the need for information literacy skills grows.
Unfortunately, this is more visible than ever at the moment. As people’s fears about COVID-19 have grown with the pathogen’s global spread, so too have misinformation and disinformation. Online mega-retailer Amazon has halted sales of fake cures as scammers try to take advantage of the fear surrounding this pandemic.
This is not the first time a spotlight has been shined on the need for greater information literacy skills instruction. The 2016 election interference may not have been the first of the clarion calls, but it was certainly a disturbing indicator of how badly we need to educate the public about information literacy.
The News Literacy Project (NLP) recently shared a wonderful resource on “Practicing information hygiene”. This web page helps educators improve students’ information literacy, using the COVID-19 situation as a focus. But the information provided offers timeless information literacy suggestions.
I saw a school library post ways to avoid the #infodemic on Twitter. This drove home how important school libraries in particular are during this incredibly stressful and difficult time. And not only for our students, but for the world they are trying to navigate.
“Amazon Culls One Million Fake Coronavirus Products.” 2020. BBC News (Feb. 28). www.bbc.com/news/technology-51675183 (accessed Mar. 22, 2020).
Cellan-Jones, Rory. 2020. “Coronavirus: Fake News Is Spreading Fast.” BBC News (Feb. 2). www.bbc.com/news/technology-51646309 (accessed Mar. 22, 2020).
News Literacy Project. 2020. “Classroom Connection: Practicing Information Hygiene.” News Literacy Project (Mar. 17). newslit.org/updates/classroom-connection-practicing-information-hygiene/ (accessed Mar. 22, 2020).
Wilson, Patrick. 1983. Second-Hand Knowledge : An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Wolfpack Library. 2020.“The #coronavirus Pandemic Has Also Brought on an #infodemic. Learn More about the Current Infodemic and Find Links to Resources for Navigating Information as We Are Deluged with #covid19 Coverage: Http://Bit.Ly/Rst-Infodemic #whhspack #guhsdlearns #infolit.” @WestHillsLIB, West Hills High School (Mar. 12). twitter.com/WestHillsLIB/status/1238133117283520512?s=20 (accessed Mar. 12, 2020).
Author: Steve Tetreault
Steve has been teaching middle school English for 20 years, has several degrees in education, and recently finished his last semester as a school library media specialist student. He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!