Access to information is not the same as information literacy
As the largest democratic election in the world is underway, our decisions seem to have become more difficult than ever before, precisely because of the millions of reports, opinions and debates that are available to us in 2019. It feels overwhelming to process all that information, identify real news from the fake, and make the decisions that best represent our intentions. We are now decidedly past the “simpler” era when one or two trusted newspapers, radio or TV newscasts would adequately inform our thoughts about everything.
Information is the formative unit of democracy. Traditional media of the past maintained its own biases and gatekeeping. The opening up of those gates in the 21st century, especially through the Internet, has added to our mainstream conversation many more perspectives from marginalised communities; individuals who were previously silenced by oppressors and abusers; places too deep in the interiors of the country for city-based media to regularly cover their news. If anything, this explosion of information from non-traditional sources is the growing up of our democracy.
But access to information is not the same as information literacy. Information literacy is more than the sum of available information and the ability to read it — it is the skillset to evaluate the information itself. Nowhere is that gap more prominent than when a sensational WhatsApp message is shared by thousands of people who can obviously read, own smartphones and internet connections, but don’t think of verifying the authenticity of that message.
Why are such basic practices of information literacy missing among so many literate, even well-educated Indians? As adults, we are constantly performing far more complex tasks than pressing “search” on Google. Those tasks don’t feel insurmountable to us, because we have learned to do them in small increments over a lifetime, until they became instincts that we no longer have to think about. Information literacy is also an instinct, but we did not learn it the same way.
At the school level in India, we are taught the humanities by rote learning and memorisation, rather than questioning and analysis of sources. School-level science gives us some training in individual agency — we solve our own math problems or conduct experiments in labs. But we “commit and vomit” the humanities, instead of learning skills like comparing contradictory reportage about historical events, which would have been our formative steps in information literacy. We come out of school believing that science is open to thinking and exploration, but the humanities are “fixed”.
Higher-level humanities education does train in those analytical methods, but their absence at the school level makes the greatest difference to our instincts. In a country where the brightest students choose to study science at the college level, and a large population does not study past school at all, our instincts are collectively developed to accept cultural information — religion, literature, history and, through its continuum, news — as unquestionable and fixed. Despite considering science somehow more “objective,” we are more comfortable with the idea of it constantly evolving with new people discovering new things, than with history evolving the same way. We feel unsettled when our rote learnt humanities lessons are questioned, even though in most cases our familiarity with Mahatma Gandhi is the same as our familiarity with rocket science — we read about them in school.
The greatest challenge for information literacy in India is not the lack of verification methods — the internet makes those especially easy to access — but the fact that it requires us to work against those lifelong instincts. We are a nation of the devout, headed by a prime minister who is mythologised by his followers, to the extent that nothing from a NaMo retail brand to a NaMo news channel to a NaMo biopic originally scheduled to be released in the midst of the election process strikes them as contradictory to the objectives of unbiased elections.
Democracy is not an automatically benign system if its participants cannot sufficiently distinguish history from myth, fact from fiction, news from rumour, propaganda or advertising. Today in India we are saturated with information, but we as a nation will not be making smarter decisions till we get better at evaluating the information we get. We will need those skills no matter who wins on May 23, for a democracy does not begin and end with elections. We perform our democracy every day, as individuals and as the nation, and we can only make our country work better for us if we are equipped to navigate its enormous outpouring of information in the 21st century. Let us learn to make an instinct of that.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor, and the first Hugo Award nominee from India
The views expressed are personal