2023
23
Aug

Dominant COVID Narratives and Implications for Information Literacy Education in the “Post-Pandemic” United States

Image: Disorientation, by heiwa4126 (CC BY 2.0)
Image: Disorientation, by heiwa4126 (CC BY 2.0)

In Brief

Over the past three+ years that COVID-19 has changed everyday life across the globe, people around the world have been tasked with making sense of new, evolving, and often conflicting information, including public messaging that is frequently confusing and shaped by political agendas and interests. Conflicting narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, including dominant ones that minimize the continued harms of COVID, illustrate the complexities and the importance of information literacy. More specifically, these narratives point to the value of critical information literacy, which asks us to interrogate the ways that power and social structure influence what information is created and circulated and how we interact with and respond to it as individuals and collectives. In this essay, I reflect on the evolution of information and narratives about COVID-19 and ways these narratives have influenced my own engagement with information, as well as my thinking about and approaches to information literacy education.

Keywords: critical information literacy, media literacy, COVID-19, dominant narrative, library instruction, academic library culture 


Author’s note: We are living in a challenging moment, one that has many people feeling exhausted and underresourced. In such times it can be especially difficult to read, think, or talk about topics like COVID. For those readers who are not sure they want to engage with this article because doing so feels overwhelming or depressing, I hope you will stick with me anyway. This is not a cheerful piece, but it is ultimately a hopeful one. I believe that through community, mutual care, and a long view of time we can face difficult realities, take meaningful individual and collective actions, and ultimately reach a better place.


Introduction

On a cold winter morning earlier this year, I sat in a Zoom breakout room of five participants. We were attendees at an online media literacy conference, tasked with a short, small group discussion on a general topic that I no longer recall. After someone brought up their frustration with a lack of trust in news media, I shared that, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and many of the dominant misleading narratives and media messages about it, I myself have grappled with how much to trust many news outlets and public authorities like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that, prior to the pandemic, I had more confidence in than I do now. I reflected that these institutions have minimized the ongoing harms and risks that COVID still poses. This, I continued, has made evident the challenge of encouraging critical thought and healthy skepticism about information on complex issues that students encounter, while also cautioning them against sliding into extreme distrust of all expertise. I also shared that I thought it was important to look honestly at often legitimate reasons that people’s trust in expertise has declined over the years, rather than simply viewing an increased skepticism in experts as a deficiency of individuals.

Several bristled. Others were quiet. One individual suggested that my attitude would only encourage cynicism and despair. The group moved on to discuss other things. 

Our time for this small group discussion was too short for a truly nuanced discussion about where people place their trust in information sources, but I had hoped that we could at least acknowledge that making sense of information, which was never simple, has become increasingly difficult even for those of us who teach and study information literacy. In the case of COVID, it’s even hard for medical and science experts to sort out what is true. As Scripps Research Institute’s Executive VP and Molecular Medicine Professor Eric Topol said, commenting on his decision to focus intensively on COVID research, “We’re living at a time of peak mis- and disinformation, with blurring of the lines between truths, distortions, and fabrications.” 

The open conversation I had hoped to have with these fellow educators, however brief, was shut down before it could begin. The more vocal group members expressed a view that has become commonplace in much of the news and media: my own distrust in mainstream COVID narratives like “the pandemic is over” and “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated” appeared to position me as an extremist who is unsuited to educate students in critical thinking and information literacy, and as someone who will instead instill in students a hopelessness and nihilism that further degrades society. Another small group might have been more receptive to my perspective, but in this instance, those who spoke seemed not only to disagree with me, but to see my view as dangerous and as something that should not be given air time.  

The response I received in that Zoom breakout wouldn’t have surprised me in most settings. But I didn’t anticipate it in a group of people committed to media literacy education. I had expected that my fellow attendees would share a concern about critically examining all media messages, including dominant media narratives. Apparently our views of what it means to think critically about media varied, and this did not appear to be a space for considering views outside the mainstream.

I came away disoriented. Part of me questioned my own judgment. Perhaps those who had spoken were right. Perhaps I ought to keep my thoughts to myself, both in these professional settings and in the classroom. Perhaps in online settings I ought to choose carefully to whom I outed myself as one of those odd few who are still masking. Another part of me reminded myself that having a minority view that does not fit the status quo, while often lonely, does not mean your thinking is unsound. Frequently, an unpopular opinion deserves much more consideration than it gets. And sometimes there are more people who share or empathize with that seemingly unpopular view, but who, for various reasons, remain quiet. 

The part of me that knew I was justified in my concerns and confusion about the prominence of misleading COVID discourse from supposedly authoritative sources was frustrated and even angry. Was this small group conference discussion not another example of gaslighting: being wrongly told that your perception of reality is inaccurate and thus beginning to doubt your own perception, despite the facts in front of you? Looking around my campus, my town, the grocery store, my profession (where in-person meetings and conferences have resumed with no COVID policies or precautions), it can seem that everyone else has “moved on,” even as I know many are still concerned about the continued risks of COVID and the toll it has taken on so many people’s lives – whether at the cost of death, lost loved ones, increased economic instability, fractured relationships, mental health, or chronic disabilities and illnesses.

What I experienced in that short Zoom interaction isn’t unique to that moment, and it certainly isn’t unique to my personal experience. Since the rollout of COVID vaccines starting in December 2020, people in the U.S. and in most industrialized Western nations have heard the message that we can now “return to normal.” In fact, it’s the responsible thing to do: this is how you contribute to a healthy, productive, and pro-growth society and economy. Embedded implicitly within “return to normal” messages has been an acceptance of a capitalist system that prioritizes profits for a few over the common good. Those who work hard and perform their duties as consumers and members of a productive society will be fine, public messaging and much of news reporting usually suggests. The underlying ideology, however, is that profits matter more than those who aren’t in the most elite social classes. The harshness of this ideology has become increasingly apparent to more people as COVID’s damage continues. If you are not among the wealthiest and most powerful, you are more expendable. While anyone who sees President Biden must first have a negative COVID test, most hospitals and healthcare facilities no longer have mask requirements, despite the evidence that they are significant sources for the spread of COVID and other infections. Disability rights advocates like Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Arlie Verkant, drawing on the work of Marta Russell, further complicate the traditional capitalist conception of what and who is normal and what and who contributes to society, as they point out that “who ‘is’ and who ‘is not’ disabled has been fundamentally shaped by law, economics, and politics.” Relatedly, the CDC’s list of underlying medical conditions associated with a higher risk for experiencing severe outcomes from COVID is not short. In reality, COVID and the potential for long COVID are real health risks to everyone. 

That brief conference interaction brought bubbling to the surface many of my long-simmering thoughts and emotions about the relationship between “post-pandemic” life and information literacy. Over the past roughly 2+ years, as public concerns about COVID have largely subsided and “you do you” has become a prevailing refrain, I have often questioned if there is something wrong with me. Even among those who in the early days of the pandemic were alongside me in their efforts to “flatten the curve,” COVID safety is no longer a topic for discussion or action. Shouldn’t I be done with precautions too? Alongside the (inaccurate) headlines that those who are vaccinated and seemingly healthy are highly unlikely to experience serious outcomes like long COVID, I continue to encounter not only anecdotes but also robust data that paints a very different picture. 

Interestingly, it took some time before I recognized that my own questions about how to find reliable COVID information, how to determine what information to trust, and how much to trust my own judgment are very much about information literacy. This still puzzles me, as I have taught information literacy for over a decade and consider it one of the most important aspects of my professional work. Perhaps in part because I felt so disoriented by conflicting COVID information, and amidst this confusion questioned my own judgment, it took time to develop enough critical distance from my experience to recognize that my process reflected complex questions about how people and groups seek and make sense of ambiguous or incongruent information. That conference experience acted as a jolt: COVID information is something that I believe information literacy educators need to attend to more deeply. I also recognize that doing so is very complicated, for reasons that I explore throughout this essay.                                                                                                                                                              

Prominent messaging about COVID that is not always well supported by data, but that comes from supposedly authoritative sources like the CDC and from frequently trusted news outlets like The New York Times and NPR, reflect that narratives are shaped by people, social groups, and institutions. Those narratives are also profoundly influenced by individuals, social groups, and institutions and their perceptions, behaviors, and interactions. Calling attention to the role of power and capital in COVID reporting, lecturer in Australian Politics at Monash University Dr. Blair Williams has coined the term “COVID hegemony.” Williams draws on critical theorist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, according to which the ruling class’s view is imposed on society at large. She points to misleading refrains like: “‘COVID is mild’, ‘schools are safe’, ‘children don’t transmit the virus’, ‘COVID is mild in children’, ‘hybrid immunity’, ‘it’s endemic’, ‘it’s just like the flu’, ‘we’re all going to get COVID’ and, more recently, ‘the pandemic is over’.” As she writes, “These myths, unsupported by scientific evidence, downplay the severity of the virus and create a false narrative that health consequences are minor, if not trivial.” In a recent online presentation, Blair outlined four key components of COVID hegemony: 1) “the adoption and promotion of myths that downplay its severity,” 2) “the suppression of COVID-related data and other information” (e.g., the decrease in COVID tracking and reporting, the change from daily to weekly reporting, reduced access to PCR tests and the discontinuation of PCR test reporting), 3) efforts to adapt public opinions and actions (e.g., using the concept of pandemic fatigue to justify changing mask requirements guidelines, attributing increased health problems to remote work), and 4) hyperindividualism, which removes responsibility from institutions and places it onto individuals. Artie Vierkant and Beatrice Adler-Bolton have described a similar phenomenon: “the sociological production of the end of the pandemic.” This is “a profound social and political process to naturalize the pandemic and its effects” that has characterized the U.S. government’s response to COVID. The data they share illustrates that “what’s often presented as a novel insight into COVID has much less to do with anything real and much more to do with what we’d like to believe about the pandemic. Or what people in power would like to believe.” 

Many who don’t share these thinkers’ political perspectives may be skeptical of their arguments, but their claims are well supported by scientific data from institutions like the CDC. There is an unsettling disconnect between the sound research and the public messaging that comes out of the same authoritative body. But studies keep piling up, indicating that COVID is not just like cold, and that accepting the attitude that people will just need to be infected once or twice a year comes with real long-term costs. 

Finding perspectives like those of Blair, Vierkant, and Adler-Bolton may take some time and digging, especially if you aren’t already actively connected with communities that circulate such work. Over time, I have identified a select but considerable number of public health experts and journalists whom I trust and who are countering the “COVID is mild” narrative. For those who may be more skeptical of less well known researchers and community advocates like those I have cited thus far, these experts include more widely known individuals like Scripps Research Institute’s Executive VP and Molecular Medicine Professor Eric Topol and Pultizer Prize winning science journalist Ed Yong. Both of these individuals have looked to the expertise of long COVID patients, whose experiences have often been dismissed by many in power but who have contributed the most to advances in medical science about long COVID. (See, for example, the January 2023 Nature article that Topol co-authors with lead authors and long COVID patients Hannah E. Davis, Lisa McCorkell, and Julia Moore Vogel.) The conclusions that all of these experts make about the continued dangers of COVID are not conspiracy theories, and they are not extreme or distorted interpretations of data. Nonetheless, in everyday life the prevalence of unmasked people in crowded indoor public spaces, including classrooms and professional conferences, suggests that we can all return safely to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Underneath this surface appearance is a more complicated reality. COVID has been and continues to be a mass disabling event.  

As a teaching librarian, I’ve been grappling with what all this means for my own teaching, as well as for (critical) information literacy education more broadly. On a very practical level, the very act of entering a crowded room of unmasked people – whether it’s a classroom, a professional meeting, a conference gathering, a lunch – involves a degree of risk that I never considered before 2020. I am struck by the irony of teaching about skills like identifying misinformation, fact checking, and evaluating online sources while in physical spaces where COVID precautions are left solely to the individual. Instead, those who mask are more likely to be viewed as having irrational COVID anxiety syndrome

I also think about what COVID and COVID narratives illustrate about the difficulties of information literacy for everyone, including those of us who teach and write about it. Despite all my education, over the past 3.5 years I have frequently felt at a loss about how to make sense of COVID information and reporting. I now have a far better grasp on COVID and on sources I trust for reliable information, when compared to a year ago, but finding and evaluating COVID information is still hard. COVID reminds me to be very humble about how difficult it can be to make sense of complex phenomena and issues that have profound implications for everyday life. COVID and its effects can be connected to virtually every area of study, including (to name just a few) epidemiology, evolutionary biology, medicine, public health, disability studies, communication, sociology, psychology, education, political science, economics, and information sciences. Even if the politicization surrounding COVID could be removed in an imaginary utopia, unpacking just some of these complexities with students (or with anyone) would be an ongoing process. This kind of work is unlikely to make sense in most librarians’ teaching contexts, particularly if, like me, they primarily teach one-shot classes and one-off workshops. 

COVID and COVID narratives also point to the limits of information literacy instruction, particularly in the predominant form of one-shot instruction, an instruction mode that academic librarians have been expressing increased frustration with, as evidenced in the May 2021 special issue of College & Research Libraries on the contested one-shot. Alison Hicks and Anne-Marie Lloyd’s research on COVID and information literacy, including in relation to vaccine hesitancy and information overload, also sheds light on the knottiness of information practices related to COVID.  

In this present moment in history and in my current teaching context, COVID usually seems like a taboo topic with most people across the political spectrum. Especially for instruction librarians whose teaching occurs mainly in the context of course-integrated one-shot sessions, one-off workshops, and research consultations, COVID is unlikely to be a topic of discussion. Perhaps further down the road this will be different, if/when a larger number of people have a shared interest in examining it. And still, I think COVID information and COVID narratives bring to the surface messy issues surrounding information literacy that librarians and other educators need to examine more closely, even if we don’t directly discuss COVID in our teaching contexts. Even if we limit when and where we think or talk about COVID and phenomena like COVID hegemony, exploring these issues may help us unpack challenging aspects of information literacy that deserve greater attention. Such explorations are likely to sometimes be uncomfortable, but they can also be generative.  

Cognitive Dissonance: The Mismatch between Facts and the Predominant Messages 

Among the many reasons that COVID is an uncomfortable topic is that the conflicting information and messages about it inevitably lead to intense cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we are presented with conflicting information. That information can come in many forms, including assertions or claims, beliefs, values, behaviors, or sensory input. It includes the mismatch between facts and predominant messages that encourage us to return to pre-COVID life. This cognitive dissonance also has important social dimensions. For example, when a person has shared certain experiences, knowledge, or beliefs with others who they perceive(d) to be members of a shared social group, it can be disorienting to suddenly see a misalignment between one’s own experiences or perspectives and those of that social group. Those social groups might include friends, family members, or members of a professional community, among others. To grapple with that dissonance is in part a struggle with one’s sense of social belonging. (My own such grappling is evident from the very beginning of this article.) 

Because cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, we work hard to reduce or eliminate it. To look more closely at the relationship between information literacy and COVID narratives, I will review several moments during the pandemic when the well-known facts in front of us clearly didn’t match what public officials and mainstream media were saying. 

In late February 2020, when small towns in Italy started locking down, I read news story after news story saying that COVID wasn’t going to have any real impact on the U.S. In these same stories, reporters shared facts about the virus’s spread that pointed to a different reality that would soon become clear. In late February 2020, weighing whether I should follow through on an international flight scheduled for that April (which eventually the airline canceled), a World Health Organization (WHO) authority figure stated confidently in a video on their travel guidance webpage that there was little to worry about on a flight and that you should keep your travel plans. The virus was not airborne. In addition, it was only transmission within one meter of where droplets were emitted about which people needed to be concerned. I wondered how one was to maintain that distance; no changes had yet been made to enable physical distancing on planes. 

In mid-March, the CDC asserted that masks did little to no good, but nonetheless healthcare professionals and people caring for loved ones should wear medical masks. Afterward it would take a lot more convincing for people to believe that masks decrease the spread of disease. The debate over mask effectiveness continues today, despite the strong scientific evidence that masks can greatly reduce COVID transmission. (The view that masks are useless has even been promoted in publications that were long considered the “gold standard” of academic rigor. Consider, for example, a deeply flawed Cochrane Review metaanalysis in January 2023, which fortunately the editor-in-chief later acknowledged to be problematic and misleading. Science communicator Lucky Tran provides a fuller and clear analysis of the study’s flaws and the evidence for the effectiveness of high quality masks.) 

In December 2021, the CDC updated its guidance on the isolation time after infection from to 10 to 5 days and claimed that this decision was driven by science. This decision came soon after the Delta Airlines CEO sent CDC Director Rochelle Walensky a letter requesting this change. While Delta’s investors probably celebrated, not all airline workers did. Some epidemiologists pushed back against the CDC’s decision and “science-driven” claim, pointing to data from multiple studies which indicated that a considerable number of people continue to be contagious still 10 days after infection. As Tim Requarth reports, only months later would Rochelle Walensky acknowledge that the CDC made its recommendations by also considering other factors like the ability for people to return to work. The CDC has not changed this isolation guidance. 

Perhaps even more concerning is the CDC’s decision in February 2022 to move from using case count data to determine COVID risk level to a “community levels” system that is based solely on hospitalizations and deaths. (The CDC issued a related media statement on March 3, 2022.) A once bright-red map suddenly turned green, suggesting that most of the country had suddenly moved from high to low levels of transmission and risk. Most of us, the CDC suggested, happily did not need to worry about the harm that might come to those at higher risk of hospitalization or death, like the elderly and the immunocompromised. 

The implicit message: those “others” were more expendable than the healthy majority. (CDC Director Rochelle Walensky would later apologize to disability rights advocates for stating that it was “encouraging” that most vaccinated individuals who have died from COVID-19 “were unwell to begin with.”) Professor of Law Jacqueline R. Fox points out the common implication in COVID public health messaging and reporting that certain lives are less valuable than others. She links to examples of messages about those who are older, disabled, or overweight. One could add to this list communities of color and transgender people, who have all been disproportionately affected by COVID. Behind this is, of course, a much longer history of social inequities and injustice. 

In addition to discounting the value of all human beings, this messaging has repeatedly downplayed the toll of long COVID. It is certainly good news that fewer people are dying from or being hospitalized for COVID (though those numbers have recently been rising again). At the same time, this almost exclusive focus on hospitalizations and deaths distracts from the long-term harms of COVID. Every day more data from studies in highly regarded science and medical journals reveals that the damage is mounting and has been underestimated. In February 2023, the CDC quietly issued a report in February 2023 which states that “the virus that causes COVID-19, can have lasting effects on nearly every organ and organ system of the body weeks, months, and potentially years after infection.” And contrary to a common perception that long COVID is limited mainly to those who were infected early in the pandemic and the common belief that Omicron is mild, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in May 2023 estimated that roughly ten percent of people who are infected with Omicron once experience post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC, or “long COVID”) at six months or more after infection, while approximately twenty percent experience the condition after a second Omicron infection. Despite these high numbers, long COVID is repeatedly minimized as a real risk to “most of us” (that is, those who are not immunocompromised or experiencing any number of other challenging health conditions). 

In his April 2023 Atlantic article “Long COVID Is Being Erased–Again,” Ed Yong discusses numerous reasons that experiences of long COVID are silenced or minimized, including the fact that long COVID is a “mirror on our society” that is “deeply unflattering.” It “challenges our belief in our institutions, because truly contending with what long-haulers go through means acknowledging how poorly the health-care system treats chronically ill patients, how inaccessible social support is to them, and how many callous indignities they suffer at the hands of even those closest to them.”

Most academic conferences, including library and information literacy conferences, have accepted the dominant narrative about COVID with little to no question, returning to in-person conferences with no or at best limited COVID policies. “We are following government guidelines and monitoring the situation,” is what I have been told. So far, no in-person library conferences that I know of have visibly made COVID precautions part of their event planning. Many of these conferences feature themes of being stronger together and cultivating inclusive and equitable communities. Almost all librarians will share this desire for supportive, strong, and inclusive communities, and yet holding such events without COVID precautions inevitably excludes many in our profession. Moreover, such events frequently result in COVID infections that lead some to feeling the opposite of stronger. Librarian and scholar Fobazi M. Ettarh has written about her own grief process in response to this reality. Those who participate in such events (some of whom may feel that they have no or limited choice, given job requirements or expectations) face the increased risk of a COVID infection that may have long-term health consequences. 

Of course, the pre-pandemic normal approach to conferences is hardly unique to librarianship. Ironically, an April 2023 CDC epidemiology conference in Atlanta is just one example of a conference COVID outbreak that, unlike most such examples, grabbed a few news headlines. After the event, 181 of the 1,800 in-person attendees reported positive COVID tests. About 70% of attendees reported not masking.

Gaslighting and the Need for Critical Information Literacy

The experience of cognitive dissonance is one feature of the phenomenon of gaslighting. Gaslighting happens when a person is led to question their own perception, despite that this perception is based in reality, not delusion. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines gaslighting as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” 

Gaslighting has most often been used to describe abusive interpersonal relationships, especially romantic and intimate ones. But gaslighting happens on structural levels too. Many who remain concerned about the continued risks of COVID have described denial and minimization of COVID’s harms as gaslighting. Professor of South Asian History Tithi Bhattacharya, for example, states, “COVID has yielded the most stunningly pervasive gaslighting phenomenon in recent history.” For those who are immunocompromised or suffering from long COVID, this gaslighting is especially great. “Medical gaslighting” is among the more specific ways the term has been used, as more and more long COVID patients experience their symptoms being dismissed, minimized, and explained as “all in their heads” (an experience that many with poorly understood medical conditions like those with chronic fatigue syndrome have experienced for decades).

Gaslighting may be happening when a person senses a disconnect between what they know to be factual and the narrative they are being told. One approach to managing this disorientation is to take a step back from the “it’s all in your head” messages, and to consider if there are other stories out there that aren’t getting the same broadcasting or amplification. This can be hard to do with critical thought: we are all human and all prone to cognitive biases like confirmation bias and selection bias. But when an overwhelming amount of data that is generally considered trustworthy doesn’t seem to line up with public messaging, as is the case with much of the information that I have highlighted, it is worth considering that there may be larger structural forces shaping a misleading narrative. 

The public gaslighting around COVID has complicated how I think about critically evaluating information and deciding what to trust, as well as about how I teach about these practices. For example, I have been and continue to be an advocate of lateral reading (evaluating a website’s credibility by seeing what others on the web say about it). This is a valuable strategy for a quick initial assessment of web source credibility. But when a consensus view is false, misleading, or overly simplistic (as is evident in dominant COVID narratives), strategies like lateral reading won’t be enough, and may even reinforce a belief that false or misleading information is true. I have become more cognizant of the stickiness of teaching about and practicing critical evaluation and use of sources when knowledge is evolving, when recognized experts’ views conflict or appear to be politically motivated, and when dominant narratives and consensus don’t match with evidence that is hard to dispute. I am more concerned now about the frequency with which information evaluation is often oversimplified, as information sources are quickly placed into clear-cut categories (e.g., credible/not credible, trustworthy/not trustworthy, biased/unbiased, true/false, expert/non-expert).

Mainstream COVID reporting underscores a need in information literacy education to challenge binary thinking about sources (e.g., credible/not credible, biased/unbiased, true/false).1 More specifically, the misleading nature of much of this reporting makes clear the need to critically examine the assumptions, implicit beliefs, and narratives that drive or underpin many claims about the pandemic, while also considering how social norms, beliefs, and assumptions influence the evaluation of claims and sources. On one hand, some information is clearly false, and simple binaries like fact/fiction can be useful in these more clear-cut instances (for example, it is a fact that drinking bleach does NOT kill SARS-Co-V2, in contrast to Donald Trump’s dangerous claim in 2020). But far more often the credibility of sources and their claims is more ambiguous. When it comes to COVID, flawed arguments have become naturalized, despite the fact that they are based on false assumptions. Dominant narratives like “we must learn to live with the virus” (i.e., end all COVID precautions) may be comforting to believe in the immediate moment, but these narratives are not supported by an overwhelming and growing amount of scientific data. Looking at this information can be cognitively and emotionally difficult. The pandemic has been traumatizing in numerous ways to different people and different groups, while in the U.S. and many countries we are often encouraged to smile and move forward, when we may be in deep need of ways to process difficult emotions like grief

Toward Critical Information Literacy Practices

COVID information and COVID narratives bring into sharp relief the complexity and the contextual nature of both information practices and teaching. As I have suggested, I don’t think there have ever been easy or universal answers for how we teach critical information literacy. Still, I believe that acknowledging and investigating the messiness of information practices, including when engaging with issues like COVID, can enrich both our own critical information practices and our teaching. This acknowledgement requires bringing humility to that work, and accepting that it is hard and that our own practices and approaches are likely to evolve over time. It also means acknowledging uncertainty and complexity; considering the role of power in the creation and circulation of information; recognizing the social and sociological dimensions of information literacy, as Alison Hicks has underscored; considering the affective dimensions of information literacy, as Karen Nicholson and Maura Seale have explored;  seeking and creating spaces for deeper reflection when engaging with information, and in particular, as Lalitha Nataraj and April Ibarra Siqueiros argue, for reflection on epistemic injustices, epistemic perspectives, and different ways of knowing; and considering issues and information sources through historical and sociological lenses. 

I also look to recent work on the intersections between critical information literacy and critical health literacy, including the writing and research of Arijana Pavelić and Sonja Špiranec; Rosalind Hernandez Linares-Gray, Sara Newman Carroll, and Emily K. Smith; and again Alison Hicks. This material connects to the more specific work of critical health literacy in the context of pandemics (see, for example, the work of, Thomas Abel and David McQueen and Michela Montesi) and to sociological COVID research like that of Deborah Lupton

In closing, I want to acknowledge that while uncertainty can be uncomfortable, there may be some solace in remembering that over time and with critical distance, people tend to gain new understandings and insights. Historical and sociological perspectives can also help us step back with some critical distance to consider the complexity of the issue at hand and what commonalities it may share with the past or with other social issues. Fields like history and sociology also provide lenses through which to consider the narratives we hear, tell, believe, disregard, or challenge. Relative to the focus of this article, a growing body of cross-disciplinary literature on COVID and COVID narratives is doing this. Recent and forthcoming books include Michael Lewis’s The Premonition (2021), journalist and LGBTQ scholar Steven W. Thrasher’s The Viral Underclass (2022), social epidemiologist Justin Feldman and postdoctoral research associate Abby Cartus’s How to Hide a Plague (forthcoming in 2024 and presented on in a 2022 university lecture), professor of neurology and psychiatry Jonathan Howard’s We Want Them Infected, and epidemiologist Rob Wallace’s The Fault in Our SARS (2023). 

While these stories may sometimes be emotionally difficult to engage with, the history of science also illustrates that scientific knowledge can be self-correcting in the long run, with the right processes and mechanisms in place. This suggests that as we step back and look at our current moment through historical and sociological lenses, we can grow our individual and shared understandings of complex issues. Through that process, we may develop constructive ways to act with collective care. 

Conclusion

Looking directly at issues like COVID (much like climate change) is challenging and often exhausting. To an extent, I understand why many may prefer to be done talking or thinking about the issue. And sometimes we need a break. But looking away or having a false hope that leads to inaction will not improve things. In the long run, I believe our world is better off when we look honestly at the facts, and we simultaneously foster hope for a better future, hope that spurs constructive action. As Rebeccal Solnit writes, “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.” For Solnit, hope “is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine.” It is instead “an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.” The uncertainty of the future means there is also possibility, and that we can have some agency in that future. 

We may have to live with COVID forever, but with better mitigations, education, and collective care, and over the longer term the advancement of better vaccines, stronger COVID detection, and hopefully more effective long COVID treatments, we can reduce COVID’s harmful long-term effects and build a more equitable society for all. Among the collective efforts we need within education are those around information and media literacy. I have explored here how COVID narratives illuminate just how tricky it can be to critically evaluate and make sense of information, especially when that information may have significant implications for how we understand and live in the world and when the most pervasive narratives mislead about the facts. Especially with such complex and evolving issues, everyone– including librarians, educators, journalists, health experts, and everyday citizens–needs to practice and strengthen their critical information and media literacy skills. This is relevant not only to information about COVID, but also to information about the many challenges, questions, and unknowns that we face in a world where climate change and social injustice become harder and harder to deny, when we look honestly at the facts before us.

Though the contexts and climates that most of us teach in may not be presently conducive to a direct critical examination of COVID narratives, investigating these narratives as world citizens and as educators has the potential to inform our work in powerful and unexpected ways. Over time we may discover surprising openings, some of which extend beyond the classroom. I plan to continue thinking and writing more about many of the information literacy issues that I have explored here. I am also eager for conversations with colleagues in and outside librarianship that can help us further grow our teaching practices. I hope that this article contributes to growing such dialogue and related reflection, community building, and action. 


Acknowledgements

I would like to express my sincere thanks to Karen Nicholson and Jessica Schomberg for their valuable and constructive feedback and guidance throughout the review and writing process. I am also grateful to my colleague Michelle Kowalsky, who generously offered feedback on an early draft of this article. This article is far richer, thanks to their input and encouragement. Thank you also to Publishing Editor Jaena Rae Cabrera for leading me through the publication process, as well as to the ITLWTLP Editorial Team for the extensive and often unseen time and labor that went into bringing this article onto their journal platform and sharing it with readers and interested communities. 


  1. Cushla Kaptizke, among others, similarly challenges a library tradition of categorizing sources in binary terms. As she writes in “(In)formation Literacy: A Positivist Epistemology and a Politics of (Out)infomration” “librarians need to acknowledge that literacies — including information literacy and hyperliteracy — are social practices that are contingent upon the contexts of their location, construction, distribution, and consumption.” Building on Kapitzke’s work, Kevin Seeber questions the binary of popular/scholarly sources. []

4 Responses

  1. Nicole Pagowsky

    Thank you for this article, Andrea. I empathize with your views and arguments here; and to not ‘remain quiet’ I wanted to post my support. This is thoughtful scholarship and I plan to include it in readings for my LIS course on teaching information literacy.

  2. Andrea has made a timely and relevant contribution to the literature here. Unfortunately, a small error, ironically the product of misinformation, has been included and slipped past the reviewers. Donald Trump did not claim that drinking bleach would kill COVID-19. His specific comments did not mention bleach, just disinfectant, and did not mention drinking.
    Sources:
    https://www.statesman.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/07/13/fact-check-did-trump-tell-people-to-drink-bleach-to-kill-coronavirus/113754708/
    https://www.newsweek.com/fact-check-did-donald-trump-suggest-people-inject-poison-cure-covid-1619105

  3. Miriam Boon

    Thank you for this very personal and insightful discussion.

    I am a postdoc at the University of Regina, and I would be very interested in discussing how these unusual circumstances can be studied. What distinguishes people who are still taking COVID precautions from those who aren’t, particularly in the scientific and/or information literacy communities? Trust in societal institutions? Perhaps something like need for cognition, need to evaluate, and/or a similar measure related to need to conform? What is the thought process that leads people with the same educational background to reach different conclusions about what is and is not safe? Is the difference primarily caused by exposure to information, and if so, if we expose a group of people with similar educational/professional backgrounds to the same curriculum of education on these matters, how will those who learn and evolve in their thinking differ from those who do not?

    I feel like it is important in the misinformation field to learn to pin down the difference between unpopular beliefs that are true/reasonable vs. false/unreasonable. There’s also a distinction to be made between generally popular, and popular within an individual’s peer group. Political partisanship for politicized issues may also be relevant.

    For my own research agenda, I would be looking for opportunities for intervention. How can we create technology to scaffold a process that is more likely to lead people to make more rational judgments about information? Of course the more we know about how people make these decisions, or who is more likely to make certain decisions, the more likely I am to be able to identify a target for intervention.

    In particular, I feel that making the case for this research for funding and/or publication would be hard unless approached in an extremely rigorous, piecemeal manner. There are a lot of moving pieces to this puzzle, and a slow science approach may be the best chance of convincing colleagues.

  4. Joel Blechinger

    Thanks, Andrea, for writing such a considered piece about this set of issues.

    This is one of the more honest IL articles that I’ve read in recent memory.

    I specifically appreciated the reference to “Death Panel” (Adler-Bolton & Vierkant) in this. I remember when I found their discussion of “the sociological production of the end of the pandemic” that concept became extremely useful for me in terms of understanding lots of 2021-present COVID discourse.

    Something that I’ve struggled with, personally, from an IL perspective is the siloization of those critical voices. As you say in this piece, “[f]inding perspectives like those of Blair, Vierkant, and Adler-Bolton may take some time and digging, especially if you aren’t already actively connected with communities that circulate such work.”

    It all makes me think of Pariser’s idea of the filter bubble. Basically, those who still believe that the pandemic is ongoing find their own self-contained media ecosystem to support the elaboration of that perspective, while those that desperately want it to be over and to never have to think about it again (unless it is in terms of preventing “government overreach”) watch/listen to Jordan Peterson, Robert Malone’s appearances on “Joe Rogan,” etc. Never the twain shall meet.

Leave a Reply