Distrust and Other Lessons My Mother Taught Me: Digital Information Literacy and Growing Up with a Media Educator

Mnet_mediasmarts2I am my mother’s daughter in many ways. There are a lot of things which we share—similar tastes in books and a love of good food, for example. And then there are the similarities that exist because I learnt them from her. Chief among these is a strong sense of the importance of critical thinking and, by proxy, a refusal to take sensationalized or suspect information at face value.

My mother works at an non-profit called MediaSmarts (formerly known as Media Awarness Network or ‘MNet’) which promotes digital and media literacy; researching, raising public awareness, and creating resources for educators. She has been there for all of my living memory, earning her current position as Co-Executive Director, and in some ways it feels like MNet and I grew up together. I was born in 1988 and I’m not a digital native, but the Internet and associated technologies did come into my life at a fairly young age. Sometimes I feel privileged to be in the position I am—I had a childhood in the pre-‘new media’ world, but was introduced to it young enough that a lot of the technology feels intuitive. And I remember MNet evolving to deal with the same changes.

When I was growing up in the 90s, ‘media awareness’ or ‘media literacy,’ to myself and many others, meant a lot of talk about advertising, television, and movies. I still acutely remember the video (on VHS, of course) that we borrowed from the library that showed how fast food was ‘styled’ for television ads—no, really, I still talk about it to this day. (“They glue the sesame seeds on the bun one-at-a-time! By hand!”) I also probably irritated many childhood friends with whispers of “product placement!” during movies. I still have trouble internalizing it sometimes. (Oh right, they expect me to believe this ‘super-hacker’s hardware of choice happens to be a Sony VAIO laptop? Suuure.) Yeah, I’m kind of annoying.

Then the Internet happened. Suddenly Media Awareness was dealing with cyberbullying and hate sites, and providing information about digital literacy to educators who, in some cases, had no idea what they were dealing with. Mnet, and my mother too, were deeply entrenched in the forefront of a serious change in our society. So I approached the new world of information with a very real education in many aspects of digital literacy, and having adopted my mother’s scepticism of online information from potentially sketchy sources as my own. I don’t think this is an unusual mindset, per say, but it’s developed to the point that when I see something that makes me think ‘That doesn’t sound right…’ then I have absolutely no choice but to chase it down, because it’s under my skin now. Sometimes it’s actually something I can use, but more often than not it’s for the personal satisfaction of knowing. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. ***

In the title to this entry I used the term ‘distrust’, and I don’t see that as being a particularly negative term in this context. No one defaults to trust of online information; even if you aren’t aware of it, you make a choice to trust an online source. I may not trust YahooAnswers for anything important, but if I want to know how long I should be baking a pie out of the freezer, well, I’m going to be keeping an eye on it anyway, so a rough idea is all I’m looking for. It’s important that you be aware of how you made the move from distrust to trust—maybe you decided, like me with my pie, that in this individual case that accuracy wasn’t that important, or maybe you decided that you trust the authority of the site providing the information, but then ask yourself why.

I bring all this up because I recently read a blog posting by Ingrid at ‘The Magpie Librarian: a librarian’s guide to modern life and etiquette’, about a series of class visits with middle school and high school classes where she’s teaching them basic online research skills and discovering they have no idea what they’re doing. Digital natives may navigate new media in day-to-day life, but they haven’t just absorbed information literacy by osmosis. Both of the sites that she uses in her demonstrations are ones that I know—I have a distinct memory of my mother talking about kids falling for the ‘North American Tree Octopus’ site and talking about its resemblance to the Concerned Children’s Advertisers’ ‘North American House Hippo’ television spot (Tell me I’m not the only one that remembers that classic piece of Canadiana). I was particularly amused by her revelation that interns at her library had created a mockumentary about the fictional ghost of a little girl, Agatha Ann Cunningham, who had disappeared in the library and haunted it still. They screened their video on Halloween, ready to be discovered—or at least questioned—at any time. But the ‘outing’ never came. In fact, the entire incident was followed up with an absolutely absurd encounter with a journalist who didn’t bother to ask if Agatha was real until she was talking to her third librarian.

North American House Hiipo North American Tree Octopus

Seems legit.

How did you learn about judging the accuracy of online information?—aside from those of us who were told by a high school teacher that you couldn’t use Wikipedia as a source because anyone could have written that, never mind that they had cited their sources, and hearing the whole “well, it’s alright it’s it ends in .org or is from the government” spiel. Maybe the tendency to filter information by the criteria we’ve personally established which marks it as ‘good’ or ‘reliable’ becomes so entrenched as we get older that we’ve forgotten what it was like when we first started out.

It’s something I’m always aware of, because I know exactly how my online information literacy developed. Every so often, when talking with my mother she’ll say something along the lines of “You won’t believe the email so-and-so forwarded to me” or “I don’t know how I feel about information circulating about this current dietary trend” and off we go.

Now enjoy this landmark of Canadian advertising.


Speaking of my inability to let things lie…

If you get one of those “Mars will be closer to earth than ever before! As big as the moon!” articles/emails, please disregard. It comes around every summer—apparently it’s August this year. This one, and the super moon hype (yes, the super moon is a thing, but 30% brighter isn’t really a difference that can be noticed by naked eye) used to drive some of my coworkers at the Canada Science and Technology Museum up the wall.

Also, watch out for the HPV Vaccine story—“Lead Developer of HPV Vaccines Comes Clean, Warns Parents & Young Girls It’s All A Giant Deadly Scam”, etc—that’s making the rounds on Facebook. Again; it’s originally from 2009. Both this article and the one it cites, published this July, conveniently omit the fact that they’re pulling quotes from a 2009 conference. Oh, also that the conference was held by the National Vaccine Information Center, one of the lead advocacy group that embroiled itself in the autism & vaccine debates of the 90s. And over twenty years later, they were still at it. To this day they are providing one-sided information and telling parents that if they suspect their child’s autism is due to vaccination, they should report it to NVIC’s Vaccine Reaction Registry. NVIC says they advocate for informed consent, as indeed we all should, and not “for or against the use of vaccines,” though I find their recently launched billboard campaign can give you an idea of their priorities.

NVICBillboard2013Traditionally we refer to risks and benefits, but sure.

The quotes attributed to Professor Diane Harper, ‘lead developer,’ (who was not a developer, but one of the lead researchers) in these articles essentially say that the HPV vaccine is oversold, which might have been a valid argument in 2009, but they definitely didn’t scream ‘giant, deadly scam’—then or now. Harper essentially said that the risks and benefits must be weighed and that there wasn’t enough data on the long-term effectiveness and side-effects.

But these arguments are old. If you want information on HPV vaccines, look to current research. If you’re still worried, well, a massive Swedish/Nordic study of “nearly a million girls” recently found there were no serious side-effects.

When asked about whether HPV vaccines would require revaccination, the researcher Lisen Arnheim-Dahlström said that while they weren’t sure, it was probable but nothing to worry about—there are other diseases that people are revaccinated for. She went on to say:

My impression is that there are a few groups who use the Internet to reach out with their propaganda against vaccines in general. In the Western world we’ve vaccinated away most of our childhood illnesses and that’s why opponents don’t know how dangerous diseases like measles are. We have a tendency to focus on possible side effects and forget the risks of the disease and the advantages of the vaccines.

The peer-reviewed journal article is available in full, for free.

Actually, when this story originally hit in 2009, Dr. Ben Goldacre, a British physician and science writer who focuses on the misreporting of medical facts in the media, went ahead and called up Dr. Diane Harper after reading her quoted words in an article in the Sunday Express:

So I contacted Professor Harper. For avoidance of doubt, so that there can be no question of me misrepresenting her views, unlike the Express, I will explain Professor Harper’s position on this issue in her own words. They are unambiguous.

“I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’. I did not ‘hit out’ – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”

Professor Harper did not “develop Cervarix”, as the Sunday Express said, but she did work on some important trials of Gardasil, and also Cervarix. “Gardasil is not a ‘sister vaccine’ as the Express said, it is a different compound. I do not know of the side effects of Cervarix as it is not available in the US.” Furthermore she did not say that Cervarix was being over marketed. “I did say that Merck was egregiously overmarketing Gardasil in the US- but Gardasil and Cervarix are not the same vaccines.”

Amusingly enough, Goldacre’s site Bad Science looks fairly unprofessional, to the point that I double-checked that it was his. But I knew his name from reading bits of his first book, and he’s collected a handful of awards and honorary doctorates for his writing; articles of his won awards in 2003 and 2005 from the Association of British Science Writers, and from the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

If you’re interested in the whole anti-vaccination thing, Dr. Anna Kendrick of the political science faculty at the University of Michigan, wrote an interesting article after attending the same 2009 conference. I know it’s available through Western’s library, so I know my classmates can read it, but otherwise, you might be out of luck.

Kirkland, A. (2012). The Legitimacy of Vaccine Critics: What Is Left after the Autism Hypothesis?. Journal Of Health Politics, Policy & Law, 37(1), 69-97. doi:10.1215/03616878-1496020


7 thoughts on “Distrust and Other Lessons My Mother Taught Me: Digital Information Literacy and Growing Up with a Media Educator

  1. The house hippo! I never saw that! AMAZING.

  2. Thank you for bringing up the house hippo! That was one of the first things I remembered trying to point out that not everything you see is real. I didn’t realize that they’d made something similar (North American Tree Octopus looks awfully lot like some nasty spider which sent me into AUGH SPIDER GET IT AWAY FROM ME mode). It’s worrying to think that a lot of children growing up don’t have that knowledge to ‘filter’ things like we (hopefully) do. I’m a year older than you (1987), so what you said also applies to me as well. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown up knowing a life before internet, even if only briefly. But it sounds like it’s a serious shortcoming in our schools that kids aren’t being taught HOW to search, especially at a young age.

    In some cases, yes, it’s funny (such as the people who accepted the ghost story without question), but this unquestioning acceptance can also have its’ dark side — particularly, I think, with people who WANT certain evidence, such as the anti-vaccination people. (And the alleged vaccines-autism link drives me up a wall in ways I can’t even begin to express!) But ultimately it comes down to not knowing how to critically process information, and with potentially dangerous results. This article popped up on my Facebook feed today, and I think it’s relevant to what you posted.

    • Oh god, if we had spiders that side I’d never go hiking again.
      Good news about a real reaction from City of Ottawa, at least. Interesting that both of this article and the researcher from the HPV study mention the idea that those who choose not to vaccinate really don’t understand the dangers of the diseases that can be propegated by un-vaccinated individuals. What’s always bothered me are the stories about unvaccinated children who spread diseases to infants who were too young to be vaccinated. It’s seriously dangerous for anyone with a compromised immune system to be around unvaccinated kids.
      A paper was published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012 called “Exposure of California kindergartners to students with personal belief exemptions from mandated school entry vaccinations,” gave a good overview of ‘herd immunity’ and the danger posed to others by unvaccinated children–though obviously with a focus on California. You can find the article through Western libraries, but the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, of the University of Pennsylvania, posted a really concise run-down of the results.

      • Those stats are a little frightening, to say the least. Not to mention look at the comments in that article I linked (but only briefly, because I want you to still have your sanity intact at the end) — people are going nuts. There was one commenter there who said that “herd immunity” (a legit scientific term) was basically science’s way of calling us sheeple, and then compared it to purposefully outdated scientific terms like phrenology (and a couple of others, but I can’t remember them).

        The whole anti-vaccination movement is frighteningly vitrolic. This story, of parents who spoke out against anti-vaccinators after their baby died of whooping cough shows how the anti-vaccers just slandered them.

        I don’t know how I managed to go on such a derail, but to tie it back to the point, I guess sometimes the hype takes on a life of its’ own? Why else are all those chain emails/Facebook messages inexplicably circulating despite years of evidence proving they’re fake (my fave one was how to beat cancer “naturally”. It involved cutting out red meat and milk, because milk has lactose/sugar and cancer feeds on sugar, so no sugar = no cancer! Hooray we can all go home now, cancer’s cured!)

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