Information Illiteracy as a Trap For Freedom
The President of the Republic of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė has once said “Our freedom is fragile - we must strengthen it with the way we work and the way we live”. Her call to personally take the responsibility for fostering freedom is more relevant now than ever – now, in times of the uncontrolled flow of information and data chaos, when we can easily overlook and unrecognize the threats to our democracy and individual freedoms.
Information literacy of the citizens of the state today is a prerequisite not only for the personal success of the person in the labor market, but also for the political, economic and social stability of the state. Minds flooded with contradictory information are often mistaken when it comes to assessing the reliability of facts thus making wrong personal or political decisions. Considerations based on opinions, rather than scientific data, compete publically on an equal grounds with solid fact-based positions. This creates the illusion that the truth about controversial issues can be diverse, sometimes even radically different. And science, the rational measure of truth, often loses this battle of opinions. It is important to understand why this is happening, where it is leading and what can be done differently. It is crucial that in this battle of "opinions" and "facts", those who work in education are properly armed with knowledge, because they not only convey information to others, but also teach them how to choose it.
How do people make decisions in general? There is no short answer and there cannot be one. As with all human cognitive and emotional processes, decision making is a complex phenomenon. If you accidentally had the idea that the answer here can be simple and can fit into one single article or video - don't be surprised. This is one of the pitfalls of our thinking and decision-making: humans tends to seek simple and quick answers to all questions, to complex ones in particular. Why? Our reality is created by the brain, and the brain feels comfortable when everything is clear, simple, and consistent in the reality it creates. Cognitive dissonance (generally speaking, it is a feeling of confusion, arising from the state in which the information or experiences we posses contradicts other information or experiences) is unpleasant to our thinking center, so the brain has created mechanisms to help discover shortcuts in order that unpleasant dissonance would be reduced. We can attribute these mechanisms to the brain's tendency to categorize the world, and almost automatically label its phenomena and people as "me-others", "self-stranger", "good-bad", "pleasure-threat", etc. Labels, stereotypes, prejudices shorten the thinking process and make it easier… for the brain. But, often, not to those around us.
It’s no surprise that people in trying to avoid an "information conflict" often without realizing it themselves tend to choose information that complements or enriches their already existing understanding of a particular phenomenon. Another feature of the brain (by some researchers labeled as a "thinking bug") is the confirmation bias. Because of it, when we look for the arguments on sensitive issues such as women's and / or homosexual rights, religion, political views, we inevitably intuitively seek validation for the position we already have, rather than rationally consider the variety of arguments which would more accurately reflect the reality. When we come up with arguments that contradict our preconceptions (even if the contradiction is based on substantiated data), we tend not to rethink our beliefs, rather we tend to seek explanations as to why the newly discovered data is flawed ("these researchers are corrupt", "it is an immoral thing to say", " it goes against tradition and cannot be right ”, etc.).
It is important to stop here and refrain from moral judgment - are the people bad for doing this? Neither good nor bad - this is how the "automaton" works in our brain. The questions raised should be these - we, as people, tend to filter out information that doesn't fit our preconceptions (and do it super efficiently!), so knowing this, do we learn to recognize these decision mechanisms? And do we consciously change them to rational ones that require critical thinking, reflection and analysis? A person who does not realize that his decisions are influenced by unintentional processes (a tendency to confirm what he already knows and to obtain clarity quickly and easily) cannot control those unconscious processes or make informed decisions. How can this harm a person? By a decision that is not necessarily the best for him, his relatives, or society.
Directed by automatic thinking algorithms and happy with saving our time and energy dedicated to thinking, we unconsciously become vulnerable to such ideas as plastic-coated lettuce, vaccine-induced autism, chemtrails, flat earth. Did you know that dinosaurs were created by scientists who were trying to hide the fact that the Earth is 6,000 years old? Probably, there are people out there who believe this. The problem is not the very existence of such ideas, but the fact that many of our similar messages are received directly without any critical evaluation. We accept it because the message provoke our fears and we feel we must respond to the threats the message carries. After all, we need to be vigilant because our survival depends on our vigilance! Only if we were to silence our fears for a short while and to raise our critical thinking, we could easily trace the delivered threats are… fiction.
We make our decisions on the basis of our usual decision-making models, which are no longer effective in the 21st century and which by themselves can become a trap for those who will be affected by our decisions. We are accustomed to believing in what we are told, shown and written by the people and information channels that seem so “ours”. We tend not to waste our precious time on fact checking because we didn't have to do it before - after all, the truth was much simpler and less diverse...
The role of educators in developing information literacy is critical today. Andragogues, teachers, teachers, lectors ... Who if not the people who lead others through the jungle of knowledge can help you to distinguish reliable sources of information and discern disinformation and facts? Why would you teach anyone anything if the learner is not taught how to find reliable knowledge by herself in the future?
In a world of diverse opinions, we (first and foremost, those who teach others) need to learn how to make decisions. Of the critical importance is recognizing that we all filter information and that we all prefer our informational “one truth” bubbles. It's easier, it's more simple. And we, as a species, naturally like to make the easier choice. Recognizing that we do so can make it easier for us to identify our bias and then to consciously choose information that goes against what we believe. After reading or hearing it, we can critically evaluate it and make informed decisions.
Sounds difficult? Not easy, for sure. It's easier to be persuaded by the meme and share it in your feed. But it might be worth remembering J.K. Rowling's quote from her Harry Potter series: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead of us. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy”. Freedom is never an easy option as it always comes with a heavy burden of responsibility. A simpler way is to hand over the responsibility for our actions, thinking, judgment to those who would use our freedoms to have power to dominate in the informational, political and cognitive areas. There will always be the person who will provide a simple and clear answer in order to free us from the need to analyze and evaluate. And he will always demand the highest price possible – our sacrifice of freedom to have our own unique reality. It is up to us to choose what to believe in and what to create (or what to destroy), keeping in mind that the future does not happen suddenly. We are building the future with every decision and action we make today.
The article is written in the frames of KA2 Strategic Partnerships project “Teaching Digital Competencies (TeDiCom)”. The aim of the TeDiCom is to fulfill the need for an increased level of digital competences amongst European citizens. The objectives of this project are to increase the resilience of democratic European societies to resist a new threat - fake news campaigns, hate speech and automated bot campaigns.More about the project: http://www.zidinio.vilnius.lm.lt/projektai/ilgalaikiai/9/projekto_kopija.php; https://kultur-life.de/projekte/tedicom/
The author - Alina Martinkutė-Vorobej, psychologist, lector, member of Committee of Educational Psychology of Lithuanian Association of Psychologists, the organizer of educational events for educators, psychologist and andragogue in Vilnius „Židinio“ Gymnasium for Adults. Alina is active in the field of adult education for the last 15 years. She initiates and participates in various local and International educational activities, creates educational programs, teaches adult learners. Her fields of professional interests include gender education and gender stereotypes, psychology of bias, human rights and equality in education.