Fake news elected Donald Trump. At least, judging by media attention — social or otherwise — one might come to that conclusion. Something must be responsible for a result that defied polls and many Americans’ sense of propriety, and fake news has proved a useful scapegoat: It can be quickly identified, it is easy to loathe, and it is often readily debunked — never mind that fake news is neither new (forgery, quackery, and conspiracy theorizing are not recent inventions) nor exclusively right-leaning. The new form it has taken in readily sharable social media, however, has made it easy for conventional media to excuse themselves from responsibility for how the election was covered. They have made a fake-news story of sorts out of fake news’s rise, creating a climate of emotionally satisfying skepticism out of innuendo and invented causality. Meanwhile, the problem of how to verify knowledge festers: Attention is fixed on the spectacle of pizzagate, while the Wall Street Journal equates fact-checking Trump to a subjective application of morality, refusing to label his lies as such.
Though they may profit from a culture of obfuscation, fake-headline writers did not build it alone. They are not solely responsible for exalting the solutionistic promises of Silicon Valley, where a program or a platform is the remedy for those left behind. They are not the custodians of our increasing cultural ahistoricism, where history is seen as made by intrepid individuals and not a multi-layered process of past events and present obstacles. If we can blame fake-news makers for the Trump presidency and other social ills, then we can continue to deny this wider complicity in developing a society that promises knowledge as power, but primarily treats information as an economic resource. Fake news is just squatting in one part of one building in an entire landscape of neglect and corruption; evicting them will make no difference to the blight.
Fake news is squatting in one building in an entire landscape of neglect and corruption; evicting them will make no difference to the blight
Fake news is a convenient framing that sets the stage for feel-good, ultimately escapist solutions. One such solution is “information literacy,” which is being proposed by many educators as the antidote to fake news. For proponents, the case for information literacy seems straightforward: Since fake news is a many-headed Hydra that ultimately can’t be defeated on the supply side, we must teach consumers how to properly engage with information and evaluate it rigorously, differentiating between proper and discreditable use. The U.S. education system, they argue, has been too focused on teaching to tests and has failed to adapt to a new world that requires new evaluative competencies. People believe lies not because they are more ideologically satisfying than facts but simply because they can’t differentiate false from true in the tempest of information overload. Pepper this kind of conversation with phrases like “critical thinking” and “21st-century skills,” or even give it a rebranding as “digital literacy,” and the problem feels solved. We can resume our everyday life and continue to ignore the other ways the public sphere is being dismantled.
Just as fake news is not new, neither is information literacy. A 1989 report from the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Presidential Committee on Information Literacy sounds much like what today’s advocates espouse: It describes information literacy as “a survival skill in the Information Age. Instead of drowning in the abundance of information that floods their lives, information literate people know how to find, evaluate, and use information effectively to solve a particular problem or make a decision — whether the information they select comes from a computer, a book, a government agency, a film, or any number of other possible resources.”
That report was itself a response to a paper from the 1974 National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, which called for the nation to achieve information literacy by 1984. Going further back, Bill Johnson and Sheila Webber link information literacy to Vannevar Bush’s World War II–era treatise on information, science, and warfare, “As We May Think.” The only change to information literacy over the past 70 years is the specter it is invoked to defeat: It is no longer the military-industrial complex, the cost of mainframe production, or the rise of Wikipedia that threaten the stability and certification of social information. Today’s barbarian at the gate is a much more evocative villain, because it is our own reflection.
Information literacy presumes a set of unbiased institutions and incorruptible instructors are waiting in the wings to begin inculcating the masses with the proper truth procedures. As much as the advocates of information literacy at libraries and universities hope to be arbiters of truth and facilitators of knowledge, with a unimpeachable mission of social justice guiding their practices, their micro actions over the past few centuries have too often been tangential rather than negotiated with or in resistance to the dominant hierarchy. The result is a system that, by and large, reconciles pupils to the existing order, first in deference to an aristocracy of power and now to the sovereignty of the market.
Critical thinking is at the foundation of information literacy, but those selling it are not necessarily in a position to actually supply it. They may be hampered by an inability to think critically about their own practices and proposals.
Prior to social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, purveyors of false truth were rebutted by distributed networks of widely accepted arbiters of knowledge. Colleges and universities were one part of the localized networks; there were also galleries for art, learned societies such as the Royal Society in London for natural and political history, science societies like the Academy of Sciences in Paris for zoological and biological study, and libraries for textual information. These societies and their associated spaces existed in towns and cities of all sizes, mainly in Europe but also early America, and membership was limited, often by invitation. The identification and maintenance of scholastically and culturally significant artifacts was in the hands of historical power.
The opportunity for representative democracy in the development of knowledge dawned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spurred by social innovation and local efforts to change historical definitions of citizenry. Museums, zoos, and many societies opened their doors and collections to the public. At the same time, philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie helped create over 2,000 libraries in towns and localities throughout the world. Here was an effort — as Tony Bennett, a professor of cultural studies at Western Sydney University, argues, to forestall civil unrest through promoting the diffusion of knowledge.
But the public was expected to consume the artifacts on display, not participate in their assessment or curation. Nor were they taught the criteria that established importance or brought into a democratic process for determining them. By and large the institutions remained fundamentally elitist, and the capacity to validate social knowledge continued through the hands of the established order. Museums and the like, to paraphrase Theodor Adorno, became mausoleums open for general admission. Open access to these institutions served merely to coordinate mass consumption of already certified objects, presented in what Oliver Gaycken calls a “decontextualized curiosity,” where learners are treated as users meant to view information items from an established list without understanding why or how any of it relates to the projects of building knowledge in a given discipline.
“Content” is not simply access to the world’s information banks, but a standardized experience that makes any candidate more easily assessed against any other
A disparity existed between open access to education and pre-determined engagement with the historical arbiters of knowledge. As more people were granted the rights of citizens, enrollment surged in compulsory and higher education. Despite increased access to these spaces, the opportunity for collaboration in real knowledge creation remained a professorial pursuit, with doctoral student assistance. Community and undergraduate enrollment remained a space of indoctrinating information transfer. The rise in graduate-level enrollments was not a matter of more students becoming involved in original research or the dispensation of expert knowledge; it came largely from the development of career-based professional programs. The average student’s exposure to education remained the consumption of pre-produced content, often created at scale by third-party businesses in the form of textbooks and curricula.
The content-consumption model used in schools perpetuates the same model that the mass media has used, providing decontextualized information as edutainment. News organizations advertised presidential debates as though they were pro-wrestling bouts and offered more than a year of up-to-the-minute calculations of winning odds, as if the election were a sporting event. These same reputable news companies offered paid content within traditional news sections, and used click or viewership data to set coverage quotas.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the emerging mass media of his era, unlike the singular aura-laden artifacts of an early era, were imposing a “graduated and hierarchized mediation” on audiences who consume them simultaneously. These audiences did not have a unique and original response to the works, nor did their views aggregate into the creation of a new, shared general meaning. Instead consumers experienced their response as individualized, even as it was harmonized with the rest of the mass having the same experience.
So unlike with painting, which, before mass reproduction and distribution technology, “always had an excellent chance to be viewed by one person or by a few,” modern media convene individuals as masses. At the cinema, Benjamin argued, “individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce.” A collective response is shaped, a norm is established, but the members who have been normalized don’t feel as though they contributed to a community that produced the norm. Instead, they feel they had a purely individual response that just happens to coordinate with everyone else’s. And that response is governed by the industry that made the work that could be consumed at such a scale.
The information shared by educational institutions and libraries works similarly: it has been oriented to a mass. Whether bound or stored in an online archive, it is sorted, labeled, and mobilized as content, which requires “hierarchization.” “Content” today is not simply access to the information banks of the world, but a thoroughly designed experience meant to guide the end user to a specific understanding, which can then be measured against the demands of employers for specifically skilled applicants. A standardized experience makes any candidate more easily assessed against any other.
So rather than develop localized standards, with librarians and instructors working in collaboration with those seeking information, developing together shared social standards for knowledge in their community, colleges and libraries have ceded control to content publishers, who impose their hierarchical understanding of information on passive consumers, leaving institutions to only exhibit and protect the information. In this, they have excelled: Access to the world’s most prestigious research journals is a website away, although that website is behind both a tuition and a journal subscription firewall. The best teachers in the world offer the best courses in the world for free through networks of classes aimed at democratizing education, as long as the students are essentially autodidacts. Although shrewd advertising promotes the college experience as personalized and connective, schools and libraries have joined the historical arbiters of culture as mausoleums.
For the past 40 years, society has demanded information literacy of students, but effectively extolled the virtues of citizens as mass content consumers. Schools and libraries are not conduits of a knowledge society, but appendages of a knowledge economy. Instead of teaching students critical thinking, they have stoked decontextualized curiosity. Rather than develop students’ wisdom and character, they have focused on making their students’ market value measurable through standardized testing.
Universities and the mass media are both beholden to profit-driven business models, leaving well-intentioned information-literacy advocates nowhere to turn. To remake education into a space of social justice rather than course-by-course “all you can consume” content buffets, faculty and staff would need to acknowledge and address these structural issues. Instead, educators doubled down on control, promulgating top-down information-literacy rubrics.
Schools and libraries are appendages of a knowledge economy. Instead of teaching students critical thinking, they’ve stoked decontextualized curiosity
The word rubric, fittingly, comes from medieval church doctrine regarding expected rules for group worship. Information-literacy rubrics are equally indoctrinating. One popular information-literacy rubric is RADCAB (relevancy, appropriateness, detail, currency, authority, and bias), which was designed for K-12 students and comes complete with a children’s book: Little RADCABing Hood: A Cautionary Tale for Young Researchers. Another is CRAAP (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose), designed for higher education students. Other rubrics exist too, but they all draw on the same criteria of authorial authority, topicality, and proximity to recent events. By these standards, primary-source news organizations are considered valid and reliable; government agencies and holders of public office, more so.
For information literacy to have any relevance, schools and libraries must assume that primary sources and government agencies act in good faith. But the social media prowess of a Donald Trump scuttles CRAAP logic. Not only does Trump disregard information literacy protocols in his own information diet — he famously declared during the campaign, “All I know is what’s on the internet” — but he operates with an entirely different paradigm for making public statements. He speaks as a celebrity, confident in the value of his brand, rather than as a politician or technocrat, making recourse to facts, tactical compromises, or polls.
There is no reason to think that the Trump administration will be a “valid” source in the sense of making truthful, accurate statements. Instead, Trump has backed into Karl Rove’s famous idea of the reality-based community: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again.”
Trump-based reality is now spreading into other government agencies. In late 2016, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology used its .gov homepage to question causes of climate change, while the Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources recently changed reports to claim the subject is a matter of scientific debate.
Benjamin ends “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by arguing that “fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” This recasts social media in a more sinister light. Fascism is on the rise not because students can’t tell fake news from the slanted news promulgated by hegemonic interests. Rather, fascism is resurgent because freedom of expression has turned out to have little to do with what we can create and much more to do with how much we can consume.
The promise of social justice and upward mobility through education has largely gone unkept, and many citizens who believed in democratic progress have turned to different promises. Information literacy fails not only because it serves a broken system, but because it is affectively beside the point. Its cerebral pleasure pales in comparison with fascism’s more direct, emotive appeals.
Information today is content, a consumable whose truth value is measured in page views. To combat this, the validation of knowledge must be localized, shared in communities between engaged citizens. Information-literacy rubrics implemented by individuals are insufficient. We must value expertise, but experts must also commit to forging community through shared development. The one-way diffusion of knowledge must be upended.
Information literacy is less a solution than an alibi for the problems ailing education. “Solving” fake news will only compound the real problem. Without substantial work to subvert the traditional and promote the outside, the feel-good efforts of information literacy will not serve America’s promised rebound. Instead they will signify democracy’s dead-cat bounce.