Misinformation and Disinformation in Medias: An Intersection of Information Professionals and Human Rights

A reflection piece for 697-02: Information and Human Rights incorporating class readings and discussions.

“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.” – Philip K Dick


Those of us in the developed world are plugged in. We are voracious consumers of information. Everyday, we feast on the words thrown at us from every direction. Our access to information, the development in sophistication of information infrastructures, and the constant upgrades to phones and computers, result in an overwhelming consumption of information: We wake up to check email and messages, then fall asleep in the digital glow of a cell phone or tablet.

More than checking statuses or tweeting out memes, our general consumption of information has wide-reaching effects. Johannes Britz argues information and communication technologies (ICTs), like our cell phones and tablets, have “…introduced a profound societal transformation.” (Britz, 2008. p. 1172). ICTs change the way we participate in information platforms and that access to information changes the way we interact with institutions and with each other. While ICTs facilitate the spread of information, they also facilitate censorship and surveillance by  collecting data about the users of ITCs.

The dual nature of ICTs and their role in human rights have been a major part of our class discussions. In the context of the roles of information professionals and human rights, we have discussed the duties and responsibilities of information professionals. One of the questions that has arisen for me in this discussion has been: How do we encourage information literacy within diverse cultural contexts and set aside biases and potentially imperialist notions of ‘doing-good’ to assess the information needs of diverse communities? The language surrounding the roles of information professionals as they strive to increase information literacy so that patrons may recognize misinformation and disinformation in our global information networks, highlights important nuances in the ways the promotion of information literacy affects our specific user communities in both positive and negative ways.

Technology is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for harm. Does the internet disrupt informational hierarchies or enforce them? Digital networks and the technologies that access them can be used for both depending on the intent of the content creator and the user. Rumors, gossip, and lies fall into the often blurry categories of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is the unknowing spread of false information without malicious intent. Disinformation is spreading false information intentionally. Medias (internet, radio, print) are the conduits for of information and used to sway constituents, sell products, to construct histories, and to mobilize policy.

As an information professional , I think it’s notable to look at the ways information professionals (librarians, researchers, archivists, and others) are asked to be conscious consumers of information and to train their patrons to be conscious consumers by the promotion of information literacy. We associate the spread of information and the spread of “truth” with the promotion of human rights.


The collection and dissemination of information to increase knowledge is the underlying ethos that carries through the information professions and is recognized by its governing bodies:

  • The American Library Association (ALA) code of ethics states that information professionals “…significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.” It also maintains that libraries are “an essential public good” and supports Article 19 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in which “freedom of information is an inalienable human right.”
  • The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), is a”leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. It is the global voice of the library and information profession.” IFLA reinforces the idea that information professionals act within the realm of social justice and have ethical responsibilities associated with their work when they state in the IFLA Code of Ethics: “Information service in the interest of social, cultural and economic well-being is at the heart of librarianship and therefore librarians have social responsibility.”

These noble goals and responsibilities position information professionals within a framework of power. The information professional has the ability to bestow information to others. By examining this power structure, it becomes apparent that there are issues of Western biases that need be explored. Dissecting the ways information professionals are asked to create information literacy and its ties to the ethical foundations of social justice in the profession, unearths the complexity of a Western ethical rhetoric on “global digital citizenship.”Global digital citizenship is a term used by Jared Bielby and supports the relationships between information literacy and human rights. Bielby hones in on the Western rhetoric surrounding information literacy and the implications of this rhetoric when he says:

“…the bias of western tradition emanates, inhibiting an equitable global voice whereby a Euro-centric presumption that more information is better for society and individual citizens prefaces digital ethics, as it prefaces the very western-born idea of information literacies, an idea founded in democratic and humanist principles whose tenets have again been presumed and globally layered as one size fits all (cultures), foundations to citizenship that are not necessarily shared at an intercultural level.” (Bielby, 2015, p.3).


If it is accepted that information professions have an obligation to promote social justice and human rights, than we also accept that one of the main tasks of information professionals will be to scrutinize wide-reaching narratives from governments and corporations and discern what is fact and what is fiction. When putting information literacy into practice and disseminating misinformation and disinformation, we as information professionals should also recognize that changing contexts can shift and cultural differences between information-consuming communities may influence what is deemed misinformation or disinformation. While a noble quest, the language used in promoting social justice within the profession may be seen to enforce a rhetoric of Western imperialism.

While information professionals strive to promote information literacy within a context of social justice, it is important to understand the cultural contexts that determine the meaning of “literacy.” Because intention is the fine line that separates misinformation from the more malicious disinformation, information communities may interpret and use information in different ways. Natasha Karlova and Karen Fisher argue in their presentation for the Information Seeking in Context (ISIC) conference that misinformation and disinformation should be included in discussions of information networks as people still act upon this information as if it were true. “…regardless of whether truth or falsity can or cannot be determined ‘objectively’, people still need information and make decisions about it based on their subjective determinations of truth or falsity.” (Karlova and Fisher, 2012, p.12). The “usefulness” of information is determined by the contexts and communities where that information is accessed which can complicate the goal of an information professional trying to establish validity and accuracy in information networks.

On the macro level, I agree with the ALA and IFLA that as a profession deeply invested in the ideals of social justice, information professionals should participate and facilitate discussions surrounding misinformation and disinformation with regards to human rights  and access to information from governments and from corporations that, hand in hand with the development of ICTs, has wide-reaching effects within many communities across the digitally interconnected (and unconnected) globe.

On the micro level, the promotion of information literacy and social justice within the profession should develop collections responsibly and with sensitivity to the communities represented. Information professions should be open to interpreting information literacy and the interpretations of misinformation and disinformation within different cultural and social contexts, whether that’s understanding informational hierarchies and the restrictions to access in different countries, or in the creation of data infrastructures.

Looking at information professions through the lens of human rights and social justice gives me a sense that whatever job I may end up with in the field will contribute in a positive way towards this higher goal. Nonetheless, it’s important to remain rooted in the communities we serve and promote information literacy with a vocabulary that best supports these communities.




Links and Sources:

ReAmerican Library Association. “Code of Ethics of the American Library Association.” Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics
American Library Association. “Core Values of Librarianship.” Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/corevalues#publicgood
American Library Association. “Resolution on IFLA, Human Rights and Freedom of Expression.” Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/offices/iro/awardsactivities/resolutionifla
Association of College & Research Libraries (2016). “Information Literacy Defined” from Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency#ildef
Bielby, Jared (2015). Global digital citizenship. International Review of Information Ethics. 23(2-3). Retrieved from: http://www.i-r-i-e.net/inhalt/023/IRIE-023-01.pdf
Britz, J.J. (2008). Making the global information society good: A social justice perspective on the ethical dimensions of the global information society. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59(7), 1171-1183. open access link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/asi.20848/full
Dick, P. K., & Sutin, L. (1995). “How to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later” In The shifting realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected literary and philosophical writings. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gray, Jonathan.”It is time for institutions to ensure data infrastructures are more responsive to their publics” [blog post]. The impact blog.  Retrieved from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/10/07/it-is-time-for-institutions-to-ensure-data-infrastructures-are-more-responsive-to-their-publics/
HowStuffWorks. (Dec 2, 2010). Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Misinformation vs. Disinformation. . Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY-vdcOwVQM
International Federation of Library Associations. “IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers.” Retrieved from: http://www.ifla.org/news/ifla-code-of-ethics-for-librarians-and-other-information-workers-full-version
Karhula, Pivikki (2011). “Data driven futures – censorship takes new forms.” IFLA. Retrieved from: http://www.ifla.org/files/assets/faife/publications/spotlights/data-driven-karhula.pdf
Karlova, N.A. and Fisher, K.E. (2013). “Plz RT”: A social diffusion model of misinformation and disinformation for understanding human information behaviour. Information Research 18(1), 1-17. Retrieved from: https://www.hastac.org/sites/default/files/documents/karlova_12_isic_misdismodel.pdf
Robertson, Tara. (2016). “Not all information wants to be free: ethical considerations for digitization.” [blog post]. Retrieved from: http://tararobertson.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/code4libNYS.pdf
Thompson, D. (2010, Jan. 25). “Is America addicted to information?” The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/01/is-america-addicted-to-information/34149/
Wong, C.M. (2015). “How government surveillance threatens how we communicate” from Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/global-0