The Struggle for Information Literacy (and how I was banned from YouTube)

As Americans, we have always found plenty to disagree about, especially when it comes to questions of politics. But there is a difference in the types of disagreements that exist today compared to times past. It used to be that whether someone was conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, you could assume they were still working from the same common facts. When facts were called into question—as they were in the Watergate scandal of the early 70’s—this merely galvanized the collecting of further information. While different people, newspapers, and politicians have naturally interpreted facts differently, they did not generally disagree about the nature of information itself. And while the boundary between what is real and what is fake could sometimes become obscured, as it was during America’s WWI propaganda campaign, no one ever suggested that the difference between real news and fake news is just a point of view.

Obviously, we live in a very different world today. Since the rise of the internet, every political tribe has their own news outlets with information that has been carefully curated for their own preferences and biases. This enables you, with all sincerity, to dismiss alternate viewpoints as merely a symptom of fake news. Accordingly, those with whom you disagree are not just wrong, but delusional, willfully following sources that—in your estimation—are patently fake. And of course, your opponents think exactly the same thing about you.

May and June 2021 reached unprecedented levels of confusion about the demarcation between what is real and what is fake. Consider a few highpoints from the last couple months.

The one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25th saw a barrage of theories claiming we had all been duped: his killing had really been merely staged theater designed to create a pretext for civil unrest.

Or again, the January 6th storming of the Capitol has now receded sufficiently into the past to become a matter of doubt. From those who are recasting the riot as an ordinary tourist visit, to those who claim that the rioters were exclusively Antifa plants, there is now widespread doubt that a MAGA riot even took place. When commenting about the event for my personal blog, a reader wrote to my mother informing her that he son was writing fake news.

It is easy to understand why thousands have become skeptical of conventional information sources following the bizarre saga of high-profile reversals during the last couple months. Throughout this year and last, the mainstream media continually dismissed the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis as a wacky conspiracy theory, while the New York Times, National Review, and Washington Post all published articles associating this hypothesis with racism. Facebook shut down all posts sharing information about the theory, which the company labelled as “harmful misinformation” and “debunked.” YouTube also relentlessly censored videos about a possible man-made origin for COVID-19. Yet last month saw a dramatic about-face. As Robert Merry reported in The American Conservative, “Many scientists, editors, and commentators are scrambling to shed their previous know-nothingism on the matter and join the inquiry on what really happened and why (while avoiding, in most instances, any acknowledgement of their earlier folly).” Even Facebook announced, on May 27, that they will cease censoring content about the possible man-made origin of the virus - an announcement that, curiously, occurred on the same day President Biden ordered intelligence officers to investigate the lab-leak theory.

Is it any wonder large numbers of Americans are confused? Is it even possible to know what is true anymore? Is there a way out of this maze of information confusion?

Many in Silicon Valley believe the answer lies in techno-authoritarianism. The companies that mediate information to us just need more controls, better algorithms, and more content moderators, to achieve greater precision in distinguishing truth from falsehood prior to information reaching the public. This is the engineering mindset that I discussed in my article Zuckerberg’s Nightmare —a mindset that assumes that all human problems are fundamentally computational.

For others, like the Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, the solution is to have Big Brother take down Big Tech, on the assumption that if American citizens are just left free to make up their own minds without the censorship from technological oligarchs, then somehow truth will prevail. (I have discussed problems with Hawley’s approach here and here.)

For many conservatives I spoke with while doing qualitative research last year, the solution lies in a retreat to commitment: once we acknowledge that the difference between real news and fake news is reducible to perspective, then a new freedom emerges to simply pick and choose information sources that reinforce our own beliefs. Those who take this view have told me that the very idea of fact-checking represents a kind of denial, since it ignores the fact that our access to all information is mediated by the unholy alliance between Big Tech and the Deep State.

All these solutions are, in various ways, unsatisfactory. The real solution is something called "information literacy." To be information literate is to know how to effectively retrieve and evaluate information, and to use that information wisely. As a teacher of information literacy, one of my central concerns is helping people use critical thinking to distinguish between fake news and real news, and how to be discerning when approaching contested topics such as "conspiracy theories." Throughout the last couple of years I have been developing a toolbox of skills that anyone can use when interacting with information on the internet, and I have made these tools available on my personal website HERE. For example, my article, "How to Evaluate Information Online," gives 10 different ways to evaluate information within digital contexts. I have supplemented these resources with YouTube tutorials in my channel "How to Do Online Research."

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed by my brother Patrick about information literacy, and how the application of these tools can help us when interacting with conspiracy theories, fake news, controversial topics, etc.. We also talked about Facebook’s recent reversal on the lab-leak hypothesis, and how education in information literacy and critical thinking can help people navigate through the information maze. When I woke up the next morning, I received news that my conversation with Patrick had been banned from YouTube. The authorities at Google, who own YouTube, declared that the video has been scheduled for deletion in a week, and that Patrick is now banned from loading videos for seven days, with a warning that his account will be permanently deleted if he transgresses "community standards" two more times. Fortunately, Patrick was able to upload our conversation to BitChute, which you can watch here. (A couple people asked about the hat I was wearing in the video, apparently on the assumption that I was being ostentatious. The reality is less interesting: my hair was messy and I didn't have time to take a shower.)

And so the struggle for information literacy continues, despite the best efforts of Google, YouTube, and Facebook, to keep us tethered in ignorance.

Further Resources

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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