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Navigating an Infodemic: Questions, Considerations, and Critical Digital (Visual) Literacy Education

Navigating an Infodemic: Questions, Considerations, and Critical (Visual) Literacy Education

Claire Ahn | @Claire_S_Ahn
January 19,  2021
Perspectives

In February 2020 some parts of the world were slowly lifting COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, other countries were just initiating lockdown procedures, while in countries such as the US and Canada the idea of COVID-19 still seemed somewhat distant. Yet, many of us were receiving news and information about COVID from afar, which likely contributed to widespread panic about the unknown and unpredictable virus that resulted in mass hoarding of toilet paper and other essential items from grocery stores. As people learned more about COVID-19 so too did racist and discriminatory actions against the Asian population increase. I recall scrolling through my own Twitter feed one day in February 2020, and came across a headline that confirmed the second case of COVID-19 in Mexico (see Figure 1), which seems like nothing new, right? But, it was the corresponding image that drew my attention.

Figure 1
Figure 1

At first glance, the image is frightening on its own as we see people dressed in hazmat suits leaving them unidentifiable and less than friendly. They are also carrying some kind of equipment, perhaps industrial strength sanitizing spray? Perhaps something else? They also appear to be rolling along a gurney of some kind also filled with other kinds of unknown equipment, and lots of it. At this point in our lives many of us were used to seeing similar images, especially of health care workers who were on the frontlines or of government or other health officials who were also taking great care to sanitize public places. These types of images frequently provoke a sense of fear, and are often categorized as apocalyptic rhetoric that can be defined as images that imply an impending doom. So, the image on its own from first glance can greatly impact people’s understanding of and feelings about, in this instance, COVID-19 and perpetuate fear and anxiety. What is of more concern, though, is upon closer examination, looking at the language written in the background and on the equipment, it looks stereotypically “Asian.” The question then is why was this image chosen to correspond with the headline of COVID confirmation in Mexico and what impacts did this have on the readers? Did this image further fuel racist thoughts and actions among some viewers about Asian people in general, and in relation to COVID-19? If one was able to recognize the writing or took care to research the language, it is actually Korean. Would this new information impact readers in a different way?

Soon after, the image was replaced with the one seen below (Figure 2), which is of Mexico’s Sinaloa’s health secretary, Dr. Efren Encina Torres.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The choice of image for the same headline is drastically different and would impact readers in very different ways. As a former secondary educator and now as a teacher-educator, I could not help but think about our young students and how these types of images may impact their understanding about particular issues, events or even of particular groups of people. As a multiliteracies scholar, much of my research is framed around the following question: how is information mediated or shared across different platforms and how does this affect people’s awareness? Or, in other words, asking ourselves: how do we know what we know? Specifically, I am interested in how visual information is used and shared as the nuanced play of images have a very powerful, persuasive effect on viewers and has an impact on shaping their understanding.

It is without a doubt that we are living at a time when many of us literally have information right at our fingertips. But, the sheer volume of news that people receive about COVID is, arguably, unprecedented. We are, as the World Health Organization (WHO) observe, also living during an infodemic where we receive an “overabundance of information – some accurate and some not- occurring during an epidemic” (2020, p.1). “Infodemic” is not a new concept as it was first introduced during the SARS crisis by a journalist, David Rothkopf, who drew attention to the mass amount of mis/dis/information noting that the story of SARS is “not one epidemic but two, and the second epidemic has implications that are far greater than the disease itself” (Rothkopf, 2003, para. 1). During the SARS outbreak, Rothkopf observed that the “information epidemic – or ‘infodemic’—has made the public health crisis harder to control and contain” (para. 2) because an infodemic includes

a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumor, [and is] amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies [that] have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities. (para. 3)

To address this emergent issue in this current context, the WHO assembled the first Global Infodemiology Conference to share concerns about the current infodemic. The outcome of the conference resulted in some salient issues that are relevant for everyone, but for educators as well, such as the need to understand what information is being communicated, how it is being communicated and, more importantly, how the information is being received and by whom. As much of the information we receive is through various technology-based platforms, the concern today is not about finding information, but about confidently filtering through and finding relevant information. And while this is a challenge for all people, what our current context has re-highlighted is the necessary inclusion of critical digital literacy (CDL) education into curricula and classrooms to better guide and support our young students, and to do this well and in a sustainable fashion. In the context of this article, CDL is defined as the ability to navigate and analyze digital environments (Ávila & Zacher Pandya, 2012), but to also identify, evaluate and apply information effectively (Association of College & Research Libraries, 1989).

In a recent podcast renown curriculum scholar, William Pinar, reflects on his notion of currere. At the time (and still relevant today), Pinar (1975) observed that “the study of currere, as the Latin infinitive suggest, involves investigation of the nature of the individual experience of the public: of artefacts, actors, operations, of the educational journey” (p. 400). In other words, currere enables us to think of curriculum as a method, as moving; our individual educational (formal or informal) journeys are never static, and evolve as we learn, experience and interact with social, political, and cultural constructs. Curriculum thus is not something that is static, but fluid; it is, as Pinar (2010) notes a verb, an action. In the podcast, Pinar reflects on and acknowledges the great power of technology in all our lives, and especially in the lives of adolescent students and encourages educators to embrace the current moment to afford opportunities for students to critically inquire about their engagement and relationships with technology rather than including tech-related topics as a means to an end. Unfortunately, the latter is something I see too much of, and not to the fault of educators at all. Many teachers and teacher candidates have acknowledged the importance of including CDL in their classes, of all grades and subjects, but are often dismayed at the lack of guidance and access to current and relevant resources and are also anxious about teaching the topics well because teaching anything related to technology, media, and/or digital media is challenging for a myriad of reasons. The larger, inherent issue for me as well is that oftentimes very little attention is drawn to the exploration or the impact of visual media. Yet, as in the example shown above, the nuanced play of images can have a very powerful effect on people’s feelings, thoughts, understandings about issues and also one’s perception about events and even of particular groups of people.

As the WHO (2020) acknowledges while we are receiving an abundant amount of information, I would argue as well that in large part the information we receive is also relayed to us visually—whether still or moving images such as in photos or film, or in the use of graphs and specific fonts of text in headlines. In a recent study I conducted surveying participants’ media usage many adolescents indicated they rely on social media platforms for their information and a large number of them prefer Instagram. Instagram, though, is a very visual platform and while comments are written (sometimes very little) and links to primary or secondary sources are provided in the bio, these often take ‘extra effort.’ In fact, in the same study most participants (regardless of age) revealed they often only read the headlines of articles, for example, that show up on their social media feeds which often includes a corresponding visual image. In fact, Twitter (as of November 2020, based on my own interaction with the platform) now provides a notice for users who choose to retweet articles without having clicked on the link to read the article first (see Figure 3). This of course does not guarantee that people will actually read the article, but perhaps is a good first step.

Figure 3
Figure 3

So what does this mean, and what can we do as educators? One approach, broadly speaking, is to avoid using static (analogue) approaches to a fluid (digital) problem. While comparing and contrasting one image to another or analyzing the effects of advertisements are solid building blocks for students to begin to think critically, these approaches are often overused. Instead, why not bring in visual texts that students engage with on a regular basis outside of school? While curricular objectives and expectations are important, it is also important to consider literacy as a social practice (New London Group, 1996), to engage students in literacy practices relevant in their current and everyday lives because including topics and materials that students are interested in can result in higher levels of engagement and more lasting effects. For example, when learning about persuasive techniques, the go-to resources tend to be advertisements, whether still images or commercials. But what about memes? They employ the same types of rhetoric and logical fallacies as advertisements, but there are different contextual elements to consider as well that are required for people to not only understand the meme, but perhaps also find them to be humourous or ironic. Why not also have students then create memes? To add, as Silva (2019) reflects on how students engage with memes and bring them to class to share (sounds familiar?), Silva also observes that by inviting students to analyse and create memes allows educators to also “reinforce those fundamental literacy lessons around rhetorical persuasion, identifying authorship and implicit agendas, and citing sources that apply across media formats” (para. 6).

With regards to rhetoric, then, how about introducing persuasive visual techniques in formats such as film, fictional or otherwise? To begin one could include a film analysis unit by examining how particular cinematic techniques are used to manipulate viewers. The beauty about film is that we inherently know what is happening, but we often do not think about these aspects, we are passive viewers where our subconscious gives us clues. For example, have you ever had that tingly feeling or the sudden urge to cover your eyes because you ‘just know’ something bad is about to happen? Why is that? What visual cues, cinematic techniques were used to make you feel this way? I have developed and shared film units to many teachers and find that they are a great foundation for students to start thinking critically about visual images.

I would also encourage educators to consider visually analyzing documentary films. Typically, students often see documentaries as being ‘truthful’ because of the ‘evidence’ provided and perhaps do not always see them as being highly manipulative as Hollywood films, for example. Yet, the kinds of images, or visual rhetorical modes, that documentarians choose to implement in their films are highly persuasive. In my own research, I explore visual rhetorical modes in environmental documentary films and how they impact viewers’ understanding of issues and their willingness to act in more eco-conscious ways. From my preliminary findings there are 6 main types of visual rhetoric that are used widely in many forms of environmental communication, including documentaries (Ahn, 2020). One of which is apocalyptic rhetoric, which I referred to earlier. From my research it is evident that viewers do not respond favourably to apocalyptic images or jeremiad rhetoric, images attributing human behaviours as the cause of the crisis such as plastic waste in oceans. These types of images do not motivate, rather, they leave most viewers feeling hopeless and apathetic. In many school subjects educators often stress the importance of rhetoric in writing, for example, but it is also equally important to consider visual rhetoric and to consider not just the kinds of images that are used, but even the sequence of images that are used, and how the images impact students’ own awareness of issues, events and people.

Two activities that I have found to be effective in developing CDL skills is implementing video annotation software and inviting students to engage in the creation of media. With the former, platforms such as WeVu allows students to view videos and make time-specific comments. This type of visual response encourages students to respond to images they feel are “striking and evocative” and provide a more “temporal” or timely or ‘gut responses’ versus an interpretive one (Miall & Kuiken, 2001). Students are then able to comment on each other’s annotations and engage in a discussion about what they are viewing, how it made them feel and also see how different people respond in different ways to the same image(s) depending on their lived experiences. And, inviting students to actually create visual media will not only afford them with opportunities to apply what they have learned with regards to rhetoric and cinematic techniques, for example, but they will develop a much deeper understanding in the processes of creation that will then impact the ways in which they view and think about the visual media they encounter. Students can also share their media creations on platforms such as WeVu and engage in meaningful discussions from both a creator and audience perspective.

Reiterating Rothkopf, we are currently living in the midst of two epidemics: one viral, one informational. The issue is further complicated as we are also encountering much information about social justice issues such as with Black Lives Matter, police brutality, the U.S. election, and Indigenous rights, to name a few. What makes this time in history truly unique is that we have various options to receive information and a lot of time to think. And so, it is important to consider how information, and especially visual information, is mediated across different platforms and how this impacts peoples’ awareness. Visual images, in many cases, are the silent, subtle power that impacts our understanding of issues in very nuanced ways, such as with the case of the earlier example of the use of two different images with the same tweet. Thus, it is important, now more than ever, to include critical digital literacy education into classrooms, well. There is nothing we can do about the shifting nature of technology or of the media landscape, but what we can do is to provide better support for educators who can then better guide students to be more aware, to be more critical, and thus be more confident in their abilities to distill coherent values from the (visual) information they receive and to act responsibility on these values around important issues.


Ahn, C. (2020). Considering the role of documentary media in environmental education. Journal of Canadian Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 67 – 79.

Association of College & Research Libraries. (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final report. http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential

Ávila, J & Pandya, J.Z. (2012). Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis. Peter Lang.

Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (2001). A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221 – 241.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–93. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.66.1.17370n67v22j160u

Pinar, W (1975). Currere: Toward reconceptualization. In W. Pinar (Ed.), Curriculum theorizing: The reconceptualists (pp. 396-414). McCutchan.

Pinar, W. F. (2010). Currere. Encyclopedia of curriculum studies. SAGE Publications Inc.

Rothkopf, D. J. (2003, May 11). When the buzz bites back. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2003/05/11/when-the-buzz-bitesback/bc8cd84f-cab6-4648-bf58-0277261af6cd/

Silva, L. (14 March 2019). To meme or not to meme? Using memes to teach media literacy skills. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/education/531438/to-meme-or-not-to-meme-using-memes-to-teach-media-literacy-skills

World Health Organization. (2020). 1st WHO infodemiology conference: How infodemics affect the world and how they can be managed [Scientific conference]. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/epi-win/infodemic-management/postinfodemiologyconference-scientific-booklet.pdf

Claire is an Assistant Professor of Multiliteracies at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, Canada. Prior to academia, Claire was a high school English teacher for 10 years.

: educ.queensu.ca/claire-ahn

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