A Note to Educators Using This Text
In offering a Foreword to this extensive and open work on the issues of disinformation, my purpose is to put the book in the context of efforts to address specific harms in society. The authors and their research assistant are library professionals who draw on the role of libraries and library work for the creation, acquisition, evaluation, and use of information across subjects. The book is organized to provide tools and practices to help readers understand information as something people take active roles in relating to. These are tools and practices from library workers as information professionals, shared for the purposes of all readers to learn from this expertise and knowledge, as we relate to multiple sources of information within various environments such as news sources or social media or online search engines. So that is a key consideration for how to use this as a teaching text. This text explains and teaches about relationships to information by drawing on the study of information itself.
Another consideration for where and how this book relates to other efforts to address information misuse and manipulation is that the content can be directed toward readers who have different, and even incompatible, perspectives. The harm for individuals and society from disinformation is named by people with very different claims about who is being harmed, in what way, and by what information. As a resource for “dealing with disaster” this book provides material and tools of assistance to people who may disagree on almost (or maybe even absolutely) everything else except that information can be manipulated, and that such manipulation causes harm.
Defining and describing disinformation, and the specific harmful manipulations that people do encounter in such environments as news, social media, search engines, political campaigns, or advertising, is one central task of the book itself. I leave that to the pages that follow. As an open text resource, these pages are widely available, as is the course it goes with. Definition of the issue itself is meant to be accessible to and in support of a range of interests and readers. In providing a definition, the authors and text do not resolve differences or debates—rather, they describe in detail and with diverse examples how an understanding of information distribution and automation is important to its evaluation. Critically, what a text about disinformation — by information professionals — in the interests of naming and reducing the harm of information being manipulated offers, is a way for fact, evidence, accuracy, and accountability to be understood for what it is. For people who are locked in conflicts about what is real, or about what matters, there may be at the very least the possibility to agree on the importance of reducing the harm and avoiding the disaster of missing information or being misled about the options before us in any given debate or decision. Thus, this book is perhaps most particularly in service of learning to disagree more effectively and less dangerously.
The tools and methods to evaluate memes, read tweets, investigate the sources of images, may not end conflict over what to do and how to live well together. I would venture to say that these tools and methods for information evaluation will not end such conflict. They will, however, help us shift from people locked in conflicts about what is real, to become people exercising our agency and freedom to discuss, debate, and disagree about what to do and how, more effectively and less dangerously. One disaster that this open access text helps readers to avoid is that of forgetting and abandoning the human personal, cultural, and political agency and freedom carried in the wealth of cultures and histories over time. The ways to experience that agency and freedom in relation to how we encounter differences and disagreement on topics like health care, government budgets, air quality, school curriculum, sexuality, transportation, religion, and parenting are already and readily found in human cultures. The resources and strategies to live ethically and carefully in our communities and in relation to our differences, do exist and are being studied and created all the time.
How a book like this, and this book as an open resource, helps avoid the loss of agency and freedom in conflict and debate is in part by clarifying a distinction between interpretation and fact, without abandoning either, and therefore enabling readers to work and live more freely with both. That clarification comes through the level of detail provided about the structures and processes through which information does circulate, and the demonstrations of how those structures (e.g., search engines, algorithms, filters) can be examined and tested for reliability and accuracy. What is not detailed in the book, but left to the reader, is the work of recognizing and assessing what shapes our interpretations as we seek out and assess the facts about the life we share. That is not the work of the book; it is not the task here to advocate for or to summarize political, cultural, personal differences of readers who seek to make our ways through these information environments. It is also essential work to understand and to be responsible for our own worldviews and values as these are sources of difference and conflict as well.
This book, situated in the broader terrain of disputes and cares about human health, the future of water and soil, or any number of issues where the stakes of debate are high, also requires reader attention to what, by choice or by habit, influences our judgements of the information we are assessing. We do bear responsibility for our judgements, as much as we rely on the accuracy of information. This book on disinformation, on how to effectively evaluate sources and assess the quality of information on any given subject, also supports a reader’s efforts to consider the basis for their judgements.
Disinformation: Dealing with the Disaster is a companion to the deliberations we all must make about how our values and worldviews and intentions serve the good, the ethical, the practical or however else we might identify what motivates us in our actions and decisions as parts of the whole, of society, of these times, of this world. As is shared in these pages, there are answers for how to understand the sources and organization of the “chatter” (see chapter one) as the influx of information can be experienced. This book and the course it supports provide such answers and the tools to use them. To be sure that we are freely and fully able to make the decisions and express the views that are true to our realities and values, as we use these tools, and to figure how to do that without prejudicial harm to others, also requires attention, practice, and effort. Thankfully, there is a wealth of human history, written and oral cultural knowledges, and people to whom we can and must also turn to, across every geography past and present, with answers and ideas about ethical human life.
This book and its details help any reader to share that wealth and to be actively and confidently part of drawing on reliable information as sources for their own contributions to not only averting disasters and harm, but to shaping the good ideas and life we need.