As the largest democratic election in the world is underway, our decisions seem to have become more difficult than ever, precisely because of the millions of reports, opinions and debates available to us in 2019. It is overwhelming to process all those informations. , distinguish real news from fake and make the decisions that best represent our intentions. We are now decidedly beyond the “simpler” era where one or two trusted newspapers, radio or television news bulletins would adequately inform our thoughts on everything.
Information is the formative unit of democracy. The mainstream media of the past retained its own biases and control. The opening of these doors in the 21st century, particularly via the Internet, has added to our mainstream conversation many more perspectives from marginalized communities; individuals who were previously silenced by oppressors and aggressors; places too deep inland for city-based media to regularly cover their news. On the contrary, this explosion of information from non-traditional sources is the growth of our democracy.
But access to information is not the same as information literacy. Information literacy is more than the sum of available information and the ability to read it – it is the set of skills needed to evaluate information itself. Nowhere is this discrepancy greater than when a sensational WhatsApp message is shared by thousands of people who obviously may read, own smartphones and internet connections, but don’t think to verify the authenticity of that message.
Why are these basic information literacy practices lacking among so many literate, even educated, Indians? As adults, we are constantly performing tasks far more complex than pressing “search” on Google. These tasks do not seem insurmountable to us, because we have learned to do them in small increments throughout our lives, until they become instincts that we no longer have to think about. Information literacy is also an instinct, but we didn’t learn it the same way.
At school level in India, we are taught the humanities by rote learning and memorization, rather than by questioning and analyzing sources. Science at the school level gives us training in individual agency – we solve our own math problems or conduct experiments in the laboratory. But we “commit and vomit” the humanities, instead of learning skills like comparing conflicting reports of historical events, which would have been our formative steps in information literacy. We leave school believing that science is open to reflection and exploration, but that the humanities are “frozen”.
Higher education in the humanities trains in these analytical methods, but their absence at school level makes the biggest difference to our instincts. In a country where the brightest students choose to study science at the college level, and where a large population does not study at all after school, our instincts are collectively developed to accept cultural information – religion, literature , history and, across its continuum, news — as indisputable and fixed. Although we consider science to be more “objective”, we are more comfortable with the idea that it is constantly evolving with new people discovering new things, than with history evolving in the same way. We feel unsettled when our rote humanities lessons are challenged, even though in most cases our familiarity with Mahatma Gandhi is the same as our familiarity with rocket science – we read about them at school.
The biggest challenge for information literacy in India is not the lack of verification methods – the internet makes them particularly easy to access – but the fact that it forces us to fight against these lifelong instincts. We are a devout nation, led by a Prime Minister who is mythologized by his followers, in that anything from a NaMo retail brand to a NaMo news channel to a NaMo biopic originally slated to be released at middle of the election process seems to them to contradict the objectives of impartial elections.
Democracy is not an automatically benign system if its participants cannot sufficiently distinguish history from myth, fact from fiction, news from rumor, propaganda or publicity. Today in India we are saturated with information, but we as a nation will not make smarter decisions until we better evaluate the information we are getting. We will need these skills no matter who wins on May 23, because a democracy does not begin and end with elections. We run our democracy every day, as individuals and as a nation, and we can only make our country work better for us if we are equipped to navigate its enormous flow of information in the 21st century. . Let’s learn to make it an instinct.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor, and India’s first Hugo Award nominee
Opinions expressed are personal