Questions for a Crisis (Book Review)

Paradoxes of Media and Information Literacy: The Crisis of Information
By Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin (Routledge, 2022)
Reviewed by Barbara Fister

In a new book, two Swedish LIS researchers lay out a series of “paradoxes” that face librarians and others who struggle to align their media and information literacy programs with the needs of the present moment, drilling deeply into issues that practitioners will find familiar – and enormously challenging.

While information literacy instruction is often justified as being both beneficial for individual consumers and necessary for democracy, ideals tend to stumble when faced with classroom realities. Many instructors struggle to incorporate into their everyday practice new strategies to address the complex information landscape we live with today, one so fraught and contested as to constitute a crisis for society. Learning how to critique individual media objects or find and evaluate sources – the traditional focus of media literacy and information literacy programs – is insufficient given our current situation which, according to the authors, has been shaped by algorithmic infrastructures and the actions of political figures to use the affordances of platforms to tailor and amplify messages.

“The importance of algorithms, user data, and increasingly AI-based systems for contemporary culture, more specifically for multi-sided platforms such as search engines, recommender systems, intelligent household assistants, streaming services, or dating apps, cannot be overstated.” (5)

After introducing the crisis, chapters address a series of overlapping problem areas:

  • Who is responsible for vetting information? Is it up to individuals now to each become well-informed gatekeepers? This framing rests on the assumption that people are rational citizens with a common interest in establishing what is true, and that private entities that provide our information infrastructure have no responsibility for the information that flows through it. How can media and information literacy address common social issues when most of our information infrastructures are controlled by privately-held corporations and responsibility has been individualized?
  • Should media and information literacy instruction train students to accept certain norms about what makes information valuable and trustworthy, or should we acknowledge information is situated in society and influenced by shifting social perspectives? The authors point out that many who seek to upend social norms do so by actively manipulating information – employing the skills many instructors strive to teach. Collective meaning-making is always negotiated, but some norms for what we should trust (and why) still matter. We must simultaneously promote trust in some norms while also fostering a plurality of experiences and beliefs.
  • Should media and information literacy focus on how information has worked in the past (e.g. on finding peer-reviewed articles in journals through library databases in order to succeed at school) or should it address how information will be experienced in future? How can we anticipate the technologies to come while questioning narratives of technological progress, giving students tools to resist and make choices about engagement with algorithmically influenced information?
  • Should media and information literacy promote trust or skepticism? What are the consequences if nothing can be trusted? As the authors put it, “[p]romoting a critical agenda without relying on a shared and reasonable trust in society’s knowledge institutions, despite good intentions, risks reinforcing distrust, and the volatility of information more generally. The ramifications of reinforcing a ‘trust-no-one narrative’ may be to strengthen distrust rather than to establish causes for trust or even reasons for justified mistrust . . . Media and information literacy challenges the unconditional trust in information, but at the same time relies on trust” (115-116). The trick is to unpack why knowledge institutions should be trusted, while acknowledging they are inevitably imperfect at a time when trust has been strategically undermined by political actors.
  • How can we interrogate “neutrality”? After drawing comparisons among the educational practices of three nations – the US, England, and Sweden – the authors dive deeply into the Swedish emphasis on källkritik, or source criticism, derived from an outdated historiographic approach to examining documents from a position assumed to be neutral and objective. It became especially attractive to educators as the web broke down gatekeeping mechanisms and challenged traditional institutions of knowledge. Källkritik was promoted by the Swedish government as both a way for individuals to engage with democracy but also as a matter of national defense against foreign disinformation. For that reason, the confusingly-named far-right wing Sweden Democrat party characterizes källkritik education as indoctrination that both endorses institutional information sources and interferes with individuals’ right to self-determination. Educators who teach fact-checking and skepticism of all sources claim to take a neutral stance, but the right-wing appropriators of the källkritik method understand that information and its infrastructures are political.

In the end, the authors argue educators must be prepared to explore the infrastructures of information search and production and reveal the values and practices that underlie “structures of trust” such as well-conducted journalism, science, and scholarship. This approach to information literacy addresses the relationship of information to power. Ultimately, we can’t ignore how information and the infrastructures through which it flows reflect positionality and power.

This is a short book, but its 159 pages are packed with provocations for K12 media literacy educators, information literacy instructors at the college level, and public librarians. It is not, however, a user guide. The text builds on a wealth of published scholarship and reports on the authors’ own research, but it leaves up to readers how to answer the question, “okay, so now what do we do?”

Given this journal focuses on library practice, this omission of teaching tips might seem a drawback to the book. Each chapter is dense, and reading them is like opening a Russian doll – questions within questions, all of them knotty and challenging. But what the book does offer is an opportunity for reflection and collective action. This would be an excellent reading for in-depth discussions and brainstorming, with the questions raised in each chapter prompting creative approaches for address our current crisis of information through our teaching practice.

Fortunately, for those who may want to convene a book club over the summer or in the fall, the authors have made it available as an open access PDF. It offers an opportunity for some exciting conversations.

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