The Educational Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, And….

Graham had some very worrying thoughts …

Did US teachers set the stage for the current wave of anti-authority populism and anti-intellectualism by disparaging Wikipedia as a source, and requiring kids to do their “own” research (aka Google)? Remembering that Wikipedia is not only more accurate than Britannica but more current.

Has an uninformed stance undermined a generation’s possible respect for authoritative information, replacing it with an implicit encouragement to find sources that confirm their beliefs?

Dana Boyd writes in ‘Data Society’

I remember a casual conversation that I had with a teen girl in the midwest while I was doing research. I knew her school approached sex ed through an abstinence-only education approach, but I don’t remember how the topic of pregnancy came up. What I do remember is her telling me that she and her friends talked a lot about pregnancy and “diseases” she could get through sex. As I probed further, she matter-of-factly explained a variety of “facts” she had heard that were completely inaccurate. You couldn’t get pregnant until you were 16. AIDS spreads through kissing. Etc. I asked her if she’d talked to her doctor about any of this, and she looked me as though I had horns. She explained that she and her friends had done the research themselves, by which she meant that they’d identified websites online that “proved’ their beliefs.

For years, that casual conversation has stuck with me as one of the reasons that we needed better Internet-based media literacy.  As I detailed in my book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, too many students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.

Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have? The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’s universal agreement that major news outlets like the New York Times, scientific journal publications, and experts with advanced degrees are all highly trustworthy.

Think about how this might play out in communities where the “liberal media’ is viewed with disdain as an untrustworthy source of information…or in those where science is seen as contradicting the knowledge of religious people…or where degrees are viewed as a weapon of the elite to justify oppression of working people. Needless to say, not everyone agrees on what makes a trusted source.

Students are also encouraged to reflect on economic and political incentives that might bias reporting. Follow the money, they are told. Now watch what happens when they are given a list of names of major power players in the East Coast news media whose names are all clearly Jewish. Welcome to an opening for anti-Semitic ideology.

Children are indoctrinated into this cultural logic early, even as their parents restrict their mobility and limit their access to social situations. But when it comes to information, they are taught that they are the sole proprietors of knowledge. All they have to do is “do the research” for themselves and they will know better than anyone what is real.

Combine this with a deep distrust of media sources. If the media is reporting on something, and you don’t trust the media, then it is your responsibility to question their authority, to doubt the information you are being given. If they expend tremendous effort bringing on “experts” to argue that something is false, there must be something there to investigate.

Now think about what this means for #Pizzagate. Across this country, major news outlets went to great effort to challenge conspiracy reports that linked John Podesta and Hillary Clinton to a child trafficking ring supposedly run out of a pizza shop in Washington, DC. Most people never heard the conspiracy stories, but their ears perked up when the mainstream press went nuts trying to debunk these stories. For many people who distrust “liberal” media and were already primed not to trust Clinton, the abundant reporting suggested that there was something to investigate.


Most people who showed up to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria to see for their own eyes went undetected. But then a guy with a gun decided he “wanted to do some good’ and “rescue the children’, he was the first to admit that “the intel wasn’t 100%’. But what he was doing was something that we’ve taught people to do — question the information they’re receiving and find out the truth for themselves.

John suggested everything is connected. He may be right, and this may be a horrible example of how an ignorant butterfly flaps its wings, and on January 20th, we get …

John understands …

… in fact, he wrote this in the middle of last year … where he touched on the specific problem of maps in the global world. Maps are a very clear, and visual representation of all that we are fighting.

If I look at an Indian map – it will reflect the geopolitical beliefs of India. Likewise, if you were to examine maps produced by Pakistan, the same rule will be applied. Which is why when a global mapping company – let’s call them ‘Google’ for the sake of argument – and they draw a global map … you get into difficulties … which Google answers in a number of ways.

Wikipedia, in my (not so) humble opinion is not heading that direction. BUT – facts – like maps depend on context and your own position of argument at the time.

I am wondering if something more insidious is at work.

I am wondering if Wikipedia is disparaged because it is not reflecting our history – and so, therefore, it is ‘wrong’?