Information Literacy and the Internet

Information Literacy and the Internet

Posted on an online discussion board frequented by Grinnell students in Iowa [from Inside Higher Ed via The Kept Up Librarian]:

Please come back to school armed with whatever lethal weapon you have access too. If we can’t depend upon the administration to protect the bubble we were promised and that they are selling us for 34,000 goddamn dollars a year, then we will have to take matters in our own hands. That means violence and bloodshed. That means warfare. That means KILL THE MOTHERFUCKING POLICE THAT YOU SEE ON CAMPUS AND KILL THE MOTHERFUCKING NARCS WHO ARE GETTING YOUR FRIENDS ARRESTED. RUBY RIDGE MOTHER FUCKERS. LET THE STREETS RUN RED.

The student who posted this is, by all accounts, a mild-mannered, thoughtful and intelligent young man who wrote this odd comment as part of a hail of complaints posted on the board (called “Plans”) about a string of recent drug arrests on campus. The comments that accompany the article are just as interesting as the incident itself.

I, like many other students, saw the humor in Paul’s posting on Plans. Out of context the posting certainly seems violent, but the tongue in cheek reference to the proverbial “Grinnell bubble” and obviously ironic comparisons to Ruby Ridge signal satire. It is distressing that we are so fearful of violence and “terrorism” that Paul’s comments would be treated as actual specific threats without any investigation into Paul’s character or whether he was actually stockpiling weapons.


Posting this on Plans, I’m sure Paul did not intend people who weren’t familiar with him (or his plan, which always had something hilariously ironic on it) to read it.

In the end, this isn’t a story about justice or hyper-sensitivity or Bush’s America. This is a story about information literacy and the lack of it. It reminds me of the many incidents I encountered and tried my best to deal with as a teaching assistant in a virtual environment. It reminds me of the many incidents I encountered as a participant in an online writing community. This is something that happens all the time, and each time it does everyone puts up white flags, is loudly shocked and outraged that anyone could misread or misinterpret the comment(s), and clings to some mythical idea about the nature of free speech. They point out the blemish-free existence of the speaker. They claim that there has been a misunderstanding. He might have said it, but he didn’t mean it like that. Geez, lighten up, would you?

At the centre of all of these incidents is a simple lack of information literacy. While you are inside an online community, you are no longer sitting in your living room in your pajamas, harmlessly punching into your keyboard. You are in a public space, and what you say and do has an impact on the (real flesh and blood) people around you. You do not know all the people who are going to read your comment, even when you imagine you do, since everyone goes to the same school as you. Do you really know everyone who logs into that message board? Do they really all know you personally, do they know you well enough to know that you don’t really intend to incite violence and mayhem on campus when you say these terrible things? While you certainly have the right to say you what you like, you have to be responsible about how your words are going to impact the people around you. You have to understand the nature of the space you’re occupying when you log into an online community.

For too long the internet has been understood as a solitary experience. What you act out in the privacy of your own home, for the benefit of your friends, is surely your own business. But the internet is not private. The internet is not your home, and your audience is not only your friends. Not everyone can see the humour or the irony in a comment like the one made by this unfortunate Grinnell student. I’m not at all surprised that it escalated and became a matter for the police.

Should they have arrested him? I don’t know. While the students are decrying the loss of freedom in Bush’s America (a valid complaint), this is more a testament to the confusion of students about the online spaces they frequent. It’s not okay to be threatening online. It’s not okay to advocate violence. You’re not sitting around having beers with your buddies, where everything will come out in the wash. You’re sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of a traffic jam with a loud speaker. Would you still loose that comment?

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