A quotation from a short story from Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths provides the title for today’s article. I want to dig into the work of danah boyd and the transcript of a talk she gave recently, entitled Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation. It helps us understand what’s going on behind the seemingly-benign fascias of social networks and news media outlets.

She explains the title of her talk:

Epistemology is the term that describes how we know what we know. Most people who think about knowledge think about the processes of obtaining it. Ignorance is often assumed to be not-yet-knowledgeable. But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured? What if the tools of knowledge production are perverted to enable ignorance? In 1995, Robert Proctor and Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” to describe the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance. In an edited volume called Agnotology, Proctor and Londa Schiebinger collect essays detailing how agnotology is achieved. Whether we’re talking about the erasure of history or the undoing of scientific knowledge, agnotology is a tool of oppression by the powerful.

danah boyd

Having already questioned ‘media literacy’ the way it’s currently taught through educational institutions and libraries, boyd explains how the alt-right are streets ahead of educators when it comes to pushing their agenda:

One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material. And then to make sure that what scientific information is available, is undermined. One tactic is to exploit “data voids.” These are areas within a search ecosystem where there’s no relevant data; those who want to manipulate media purposefully exploit these. Breaking news is one example of this.

[…]

Today’s drumbeat happens online. The goal is no longer just to go straight to the news media. It’s to first create a world of content and then to push the term through to the news media at the right time so that people search for that term and receive specific content. Terms like caravan, incel, crisis actor. By exploiting the data void, or the lack of viable information, media manipulators can help fragment knowledge and seed doubt.

danah boyd

Harold Jarche uses McLuhan’s tetrads to understand this visually, commenting: “This is an information war. Understanding this is the first step in fighting for democracy.”

Harold Jarche on Agnotology

We can teach children sitting in classrooms all day about checking URLs and the provenance of the source, but how relevant is that when they’re using YouTube as their primary search engine? Returning to danah boyd:

YouTube has great scientific videos about the value of vaccination, but countless anti-vaxxers have systematically trained YouTube to make sure that people who watch the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s videos also watch videos asking questions about vaccinations or videos of parents who are talking emotionally about what they believe to be the result of vaccination. They comment on both of these videos, they watch them together, they link them together. This is the structural manipulation of media.

danah boyd

It’s not just the new and the novel. Even things that are relatively obvious to those of us who have grown up as adults online are confusing to older generations. As this article by BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman points out, conspiracy-believing retirees have disproportionate influence on our democratic processes:

Older people are also more likely to vote and to be politically active in other ways, such as making political contributions. They are wealthier and therefore wield tremendous economic power and all of the influence that comes with it. With more and more older people going online, and future 65-plus generations already there, the online behavior of older people, as well as their rising power, is incredibly important — yet often ignored.

Craig Silverman

So when David Buckingham asks ‘Who needs digital literacy?’ I think the answer is everyone. Having been a fan of his earlier work, it saddens me to realise that he hasn’t kept up with the networked era:

These days, I find the notion of digital literacy much less useful – and to some extent, positively misleading. The fundamental problem is that the idea is defined by technology itself. It makes little sense to distinguish between texts (or media) on the grounds of whether they are analogue or digital: almost all media (including print media) involve the use of digital technology at some stage or other. Fake news and disinformation operate as much in old, analogue media (like newspapers) as they do online. Meanwhile, news organisations based in old media make extensive and increasing use of online platforms. The boundaries between digital and analogue may still be significant in some situations, but they are becoming ever more blurred.

David Buckingham

Actually, as Howard Rheingold pointed out a number of years ago in Net Smart, and as boyd has done in her own work, networks change everything. You can’t seriously compare pre-networked and post-networked cultures in any way other than in contrast.

Buckingham suggests that, seeing as the (UK) National Literacy Trust are on the case, we “don’t need to reinvent the wheel”. The trouble is that the wheel has already been reinvented, and lots of people either didn’t notice, or are acting as though it hasn’t been.

There’s a related article by Anna Mckie in the THE entitled Teaching intelligence: digital literacy in the ‘alternative facts’ era which, unfortunately, is now behind a paywall. It reports on a special issue of the journal Teaching in Higher Education where the editors have brought together papers on the contribution made by Higher Education to expertise and knowledge in the age of ‘alternative facts’:

[S]ocial media has changed the dynamic of information in our society, [editor] Professor Harrison added. “We’ve moved away from the idea of experts who assess information to one where the validity of a statement is based on the likes, retweets and shares it gets, rather than whether the information is valid.”

The first task of universities is to go back to basics and “help students to understand the difference between knowledge and information, and how knowledge is created, which is separate to how information is created”, Professor Harrison said. “Within [each] discipline, what are the skills needed to assess that?”

Many assume that schools or colleges are teaching this, but that is not the case, he added. “Academics should also be wary of the extent to which they themselves understand the new paradigms of knowledge creation,” Professor Harrison warned.

Anna McKie

One of the reasons I decided not to go into academia is that, certain notable exceptions aside, the focus is on explaining rather than changing. Or, to finish with another quotation, this time from Karl Marx, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”


Also check out:

Enjoy this? Become a supporter via Patreon and get articles like this emailed to you daily — one full week before they appear on the open web!