In a context where 250 million websites, 150 million blogs, 25 million tweets, 4 billion Flickr images compete for our attention – with an additional 24 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute – the amount of new digital content created in 2011 amounts to several million times that contained in all books ever written (2011 report by think tank DEMOS, page 12). Given the on-going explosion of choice in terms of the range of digital content and information we can potentially consume, the importance of information literacy skills as a tool for authenticating information and differentiating between content presented as fact (whilst often in reality being shaped a diverse range of social, political, corporate and occasionally extremist agendas) will become increasingly important. As Miller & Bartlett (2012, page 37) suggest:
The key challenge is that the specific nature of the Internet makes telling the difference between viable and unviable truth claims particularly difficult. Many of the processes and strategies we use to do this offline either no longer apply, or have become more difficult and less reliable.
There is evidence to suggest that many individuals may not be sufficiently critical of information they find online. 2010 research from the Oxford Internet Institute on patterns of online trust (in the UK) reported that “trust in people providing Internet services” exceeded trust in other major institutions including newspapers, corporations and government. Furthermore, according to the UK Journal of Information Literacy (see page 37), decisions about information quality are often based on site design, rather than more accurate checks: 15% of 12-15 year olds don’t consider the veracity of search term results and just visit the sites they “like the look of”. The pitfalls of this approach are illustrated by the site http://www.martinlutherking.org/ which claims to offer “a valuable resource for parents and teachers alike” but in reality is hosted by white supremacist group StormFront.
Indeed there are indications that such resources are proliferating. A 2009 report from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre identified over 8,000 hate and terrorist websites and claimed that this number was growing at a rate of 30% per year. The report also suggested that extremists are dynamically leveraging new technologies such as online videos via YouTube and Facebook, as well as blogs and online virtual gaming. In 2010 a study from Florida University examined online games containing racism and violence from 724 white supremacist websites and concluded that the purpose of these games was to indoctrinate players with racist ideologies and practice aggressive activities towards minorities which may influence subsequent real world interactions.
These trends present a significant challenge to the educational establishment. As Miller & Bartlett suggest in their 2012 article “Digital Fluency: towards young people’s critical use of the Internet”:
The Internet has become central to learning, but the skills to use it appropriately and well have not become central to learning how to learn. The era of mass, unmediated information needs to be attended by a new educational paradigm based on a renewal of critical, sceptical, savvy thought fit for the online age. Doubtless, today's teachers and librarians deserve sympathy because the speed of change has been very rapid and education curricula have as little free time as education and literacy professionals do. However, education must keep pace with society's turbulence, not vice versa.