Media and information literacies as a response to misinformation and populism

Nicole A. Cooke

At the time of this writing, we are in a renewed and intensified period of disinformation fuelled in part by the political landscape (which saw an uptick in confusion and maliciousness during the 2016 US presidential election), a global pandemic of unknown origins (COVID-19), a crisis of racial injustice after the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police, and unprecedented access to information, particularly online information. However, fake news, misinformation, and disinformation are not new phenomena, nor are information and media literacies. Indeed, as populism directs our attention to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’, information and media literacies have long been concerned with bridging the divide between the ‘haves and have nots’ in regard to information access and use. In this way, it is quite appropriate to view these literacies as a way to combat misinformation and disinformation. There are similarities and differences between information, media, and other literacies; however, they all have great pertinence and utility in the fight against misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.

The problem: misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation

The concepts of misinformation and disinformation are increasingly discussed in the field of information science and many other disciplines and can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Misinformation is simply defined as information that is incomplete (Fox 1983; Losee 1997; Zhou & Zhang 2007), but it can also be defined as information that is uncertain, vague, or ambiguous. Disinformation, on the other hand, is information that is deliberately false and designed to mislead and sow confusion. Disinformation is considered born of maliciousness or ill intent. Fallis (2009, pp. 1—3) provides additional perspective by suggesting that disinformation is carefully planned, can come from individuals or groups, and can be disseminated by entities other than the originators. Similarly, malinformation is ‘genuine information that is shared to cause harm. This includes private or revealing information that is spread to harm a person or reputation’ (Wardle 2018). Examples of malinformation include revenge porn and doxxing, which can be devastating and traumatic for the person(s) targeted. The scientific community defines disinformation as the ‘cultural production of ignorance’, and instead of using the term disinformation, they call it agnotology (Proctor & Schiebinger 2008, p. 1).

Misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation are much harder to discern in the online environment where there are 24-7 news cycles of information and media (both accurate and inaccurate) that often lack visual and aural clues, clues that in real life might alert an information consumer that something was faulty, misleading, or just incorrect. Because of the pervasiveness of addictive technologies in todays world (the latest of which are deepfakes and shallow fakes (Solsman 2020), technological biases (Benjamin 2019), extreme political partisanship (Chadwick 2017), and peoples personal beliefs and emotional reactions to information and its sources (Cooke 2018a), it is especially important to be tuned in to misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation as they preclude understanding and informed action, both individually and collectively. Misinformation could ruin someone’s dinner plans because there is an error in a printed recipe; misinformation could prevent someone from voting because precinct information was omitted or the precinct number transposed. If deliberately erroneous, this incorrect information could contribute to a severe allergic reaction or voter suppression, which are much more serious. Malinformation such as illegally captured and distributed personal information like intimate photos or social security numbers could lead to job loss, identity theft, and a host of other detrimental outcomes from which the victim may not be able to recover.

Additionally, misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation actually cause harm by deliberately and ferociously reinforcing racist and culturally insensitive images and messages. Zhou and Zhang (2007, p. 804) state, ‘with the growing use of Internet and ubiquitous information access, misinformation is pervasive on the Internet and disseminated through online communication media, which could lead to serious consequences for individuals, organisations, and/or the entire society at large’. There is no shortage of examples of information and media that not only publicise stereotypes about racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and other minority or marginalised communities, but also literally cause lasting harm to these populations. These stereotypes are so persistent that they can embolden people’s implicit biases and cause them to grow out of control like a cancer, and these biases influence behaviour and thoughts, whether people are cognisant of that impact or not (Banaji & Greenwald 2016). A stunning example of this began in 2020 with the rapid onset of COVID-19, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. It was widely thought that the virus originated in the Wuhan province of China (other disinformation claimed that the virus was man made), and as a result, rampant and hateful physical attacks were showered upon Asian and Asian American people, whether they were Chinese or not. Malinformation and the recalcitrant calling the virus by racist names such as the ‘China virus’, the ‘Chinese virus’, or the ‘kung flu’ incited ignorant people (or, for the purposes of this chapter, information and media illiterate people) around the world to hit, kick, stab, and spit on anyone with Asian features (Rogers et al. 2020). This is an example of information being repeated over and over again in the media until it became accepted and almost normalised and, as a result, significantly marred and exacerbated an already-difficult global pandemic with xenophobia, racism, hatred, and violence.

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