The trouble with ‘information literacy’

cropped-bld-digital-literacy-2017-fwMedia literacy is increasingly coupled with a particular version of ‘information literacy’. I argue that this is not only conceptually incoherent but also educationally problematic.


Information literacy is another of the many literacies I’ve been writing about in recent posts. The term itself has been in use for around half a century, although in recent years it has been increasingly combined (or rather blurred together) with media literacy. UNESCO, which has a very long history of work on media education (its earliest publications in this area date back to the 1970s), now promotes what it calls ‘MIL’, Media and Information Literacy. This formulation has been taken up by policy-makers worldwide. In the UK, for example, the government’s digital media literacy strategy places a central emphasis on ‘building audience resilience to misinformation and disinformation’; and in its latest proposed legislation, ‘information’ has (perhaps curiously) become a key aspect of online safety. In this post, I want to question what’s going on here, and its consequences for educational practice.


Let’s start at the beginning: what do we mean by ‘information’? Among the various reputable dictionary definitions, I’ve found the following: ‘facts provided or learned about something or someone’; ‘knowledge obtained from investigation, study, or instruction’; and ‘the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence’. Such definitions are quite circular, as well as very confusing. For example, what is the difference between information and knowledge – or indeed understanding or even intelligence? Is information a matter of ‘facts’ – which presumably exist independently of the knower – or of the ‘communication’ of facts, or of knowledge? 

350px-Wiener_Norbert_Cybernetics_or_the_Control_and_Communication_in_the_Animal_and_the_MachineThere’s a history yet to be told about the origins and uses of the term ‘information’. There have been many academic debates about the notion of an ‘information society’; but with the recent appearance of terms like ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’, the term itself has come to seem increasingly problematic. A recent post by Gavin Wilde explores this quite fruitfully, tracing the history back to the rise of information science and cybernetics in the 1950s. Wilde argues that we need to get beyond these narrowly technical views of information, and account for broader social, political and cultural factors, not least if we are seeking to understand why people come to believe and act upon ‘disinformation’.

Meanwhile, over the past decade or so, several academics and policy-makers have called for the integration of information literacy and media literacy. This has resulted in numerous rather tiresome reviews of the literature, elaborate conceptual models, and lists of abstract terms that supposedly comprise the field – as well as a lot of generalised grand rhetoric about its importance. Yet what seems to be lacking is much critical interrogation of how the notion of information itself is defined and framed, and how this then determines the aims of ‘information literacy’.

In the ever-changing miasma of policy speak, the guiding assumption seems to be that the problem is one of bad information; and that the solution will lie, both in good information, and in enabling people to differentiate between good and bad. In this context, information typically seems to be regarded as a neutral phenomenon – albeit one that, like water, might be of greater or lesser purity. Policy (and education) resulting from this technocratic approach tends to be superficial and ineffective, as Wilde suggests. In the case of education, the teacher is essentially required to function as the provider of correct information, while the student is positioned as the passive consumer.

MIL-wordcloud-2-800x449The debate in this area has obviously intensified in recent years in the wake of the panic around so-called ‘fake news’. Yet even if the issue is framed somewhat more broadly – as being about dishonesty in politics or in public life, or about the spread of dangerous populist ideologies (for example) – the underlying assumption often remains that this is a problem to do with information, or at least the communication of information, and that we can somehow put it right if we fix our information system.

However, the spread of ignorance is obviously not just to do with the lack of information, or the spread of bad information. For example, there is no doubt that the British people were misinformed and lied to about Brexit, and that social media played a significant role in this respect – although it wasn’t just the media that lied about Brexit: it was also the politicians. Even so, the reasons why people voted for it were not just about information: they were also to do with emotional and cultural investments, as well as very concrete material factors. This would also account for the fact that large numbers of people still support Brexit, despite a mountain of evidence that it has been a disaster.

People will not cease to believe in lies and pernicious ideologies, even if they were to live in an ideal world where the only information available in the media was correct information, or if they all had failproof skills that would enable them to identify and resist bad information. Information in itself is not the beginning and end of the problems we face; and information literacy is not the solution. Would that life were so simple.


mil_five_laws_english-1024x1024How is media and information literacy different from media literacy, or indeed media education? In the vast range of resources and initiatives generated by UNESCO, fundamental definitions are often very broad, but it’s not always clear what is being added by including the term ‘information’. Media education has always included non-fictional media (news, documentary, propaganda, advertising, and so forth), so it’s hard to identify what is new here. For example, UNESCO’s ‘five laws’ of media and information literacy would mean the same if we were to just delete the words ‘and information’.

On the other hand, we could argue that media and information are different kinds of things. Media are means or channels of communication, while information (or what purports to be information) is one kind of content. Media and information are surely not synonymous, as some appear to suggest.

Indeed, it is possible that a great deal may be lost when we prioritise ‘information’. To talk about ‘media-and-information’ might seem to imply that some kinds of media are not about information, and that some kinds of information are not mediated. Yet one could well argue that a Beyonce video, or the computer game Fortnite, or the latest Lord of the Rings movie are (or at least contain) forms of ‘information’ – they tell us things about reality, however fictional or fantastic they might appear. There’s certainly a risk in separating information from other kinds of media content; or in arguing that we should apply tests of information to certain kinds of content while applying other approaches in relation to fiction, for example. In all these respects, the coupling of media and information literacy is not only conceptually incoherent but also educationally problematic.

There’s certainly a further debate to be had about the use of the term ‘literacy’ in this context, although I’ve said more than enough about this before. When it comes to information literacy, the notion of literacy often appears to be a very functional or instrumental one: it is typically about a set of skills for information retrieval and processing, rather than asking more critical questions (who produced this ‘information’ and why; how does it make its claim to authority or factuality; whose voices are heard and whose are absent here; and so on) – questions that we might see as characteristic of media education.

1200x0Pedagogically, it seems to be assumed that it will be straightforward for students (or indeed teachers) to differentiate between information and mis- or dis-information. Again, I’ve discussed the problems with this at greater length in earlier posts. This is not to say that we live in a world of ‘alternative truths’ that are all equally valid; merely that it isn’t easy to persuade people to accept that their information is bad and yours is good, however many checklists (or info-meters) you might apply.


A recent report entitled Building Resiliency: Media Literacy as a Strategic Defense Strategy for the Transatlantic amply illustrates the problems here. Written by Tessa Jolls of the US Center for Media Literacy, it was produced for NATO as part of a Fulbright-NATO ‘Security Studies Award’. The report itself is poorly written and edited; and ironically, it is far from accurate, at least in what it says about the situation in the UK. Yet while it might not be recommended reading, its very existence – and the fact that NATO seems interested in media literacy – is quite significant.

MLNationalDefense_TessaThe fundamental message of the report is that media literacy should be a key weapon in the global information war – a ‘strategic defense strategy’, which will guarantee ‘resilience’ against misinformation. Once again, this is to represent a much broader policy problem as a matter of information. Global geopolitics comes down to a matter of ‘information war’ – and media literacy becomes a means to win that war.

What is obviously ignored here is that NATO itself is an active participant in this war, busily spreading its own misinformation, for example about the war in Ukraine, or its dismal record in Libya. Indeed, to represent NATO’s role in this war as a matter of ‘defence’ – rather than, for example, imperialistic expansion – is itself a breath-taking rhetorical move. As Nolan Higdon has argued, the report seeks to enlist media literacy – in the name of ‘information’ – in the service of the military-industrial complex.


By no means all formulations of ‘information literacy’ are as problematic as I have implied. There is an emerging tradition of ‘critical information literacy’, helpfully reviewed here by Eamon Tewell, and well exemplified by Spencer Brayton and Natasha Casey. This approach emphasises the socially constructed nature of all information, and the relations between information and social power. Unfortunately, it is largely focused on higher education, and is somewhat too in thrall to problematic ideas about ‘critical pedagogy’; but (once again) it’s hard to see how it is very different from media education as it is generally understood.

Ultimately, I recognise the pragmatic value of bringing ‘information literacy’ into the discussion, especially if that entails collaboration with librarians and other information professionals. I wouldn’t necessarily deny that there are specific skills and understandings that comprise information literacy, which range from functional techniques (how to use an index in a book, or a search engine) through to fact-checking, evaluating sources, and analysing visual and verbal rhetoric.

Media literacy and information literacy are adjacent, perhaps partly overlapping, fields. But media education (or media literacy education, if we have to use the L word) goes well beyond the instrumental focus on information: it includes information literacy, but it is both much broader in terms of its objects of study and more critical in terms of the range of concepts it includes.