Monday, October 24, 2005

Dealing with Online Misinformation

I got this article through Mr. Lorenzen's blog, Information Literacy Land of Confusion. It is an article discussing the problem of misinformation on the World Wide Web and about who should be teaching Web evaluation skills. As many educators know, the World Wide Web contains great resources, but it is also full of hoaxes, bad information, and a good share of junk. As I often tell my students, anyone with access to the Internet can post anything, and no one is looking over the quality of what they post. The article's citation is as follows, and it is available online:

Levine, Peter. "The Problem of Online Misinformation and the Role of Schools." SIMILE: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education. 5.1 (February 2005).

The article's author observes that misinformation is not a new phenomenom. Some materials are unreliable. In addition, governments and other institutions have misled deliberately at times. Mistakes are possible. According to the author, "however, the problem took a new form when millions of people were able to publish material on the Internet for public consumption." As a result, it is more difficult to judge information, even for professionals like librarians.

The author points out that Web users can often be exposed to manipulation. They may believe arguments on a Web site due to the amount of arguments presented rather than the actual quality. Or users may see audience support as an endorsement and sign of quality. For this, all a website has to do is manipulate a counter to project a perception of audience support. These are some of the problems users may face, and problems educators have to solve. One response from educators and information literacy experts has been the creation of standards. However, these standards are not easy given that users often face information overload and anxiety.

The article goes on to ask if schools should take a leading role in teaching how to evaluate online information. One argument in favor of this is that it is practical to teach better ways of evaluating online information. It is in our best interest to educate students on these issues so they can make better and more informed decisions. Schools and their libraries are in a good position to do so according to the article.

The article points out the reasons to teach information literacy skills, and it also presents the objections. One objection is that teaching such is a difficult task. Evaluating information sources is not an easy set of skills. Some teachers may not be prepared to do it. However, the author concludes that schools will play a role in this. The author also adds that librarians will be needed. Additionally, he calls for reliable Web portals sponsored by the government. I personally am not sure about that last suggestion, but I am sure librarians can and do work to educate users on information literacy. The article looks at schools, but it would be of interest to academic librarians as well.

Adding a little more for readers, the Resource Shelf recently featured a post on Urban Legends Reference. It provides an excellent list of sites to use when checking for hoaxes and urban legends, a nice contribution to dispelling misinformation on the Web.

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