The term refers to the “metaphorical handwashing you engage in to prevent the spread of misinformation” (Caulfield, “It Can Take”).
This idea has gained prominence in recent years, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have witnessed a massive outbreak of misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracies surrounding this coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts have even referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as an “infodemic”—an epidemic of information. In their February 2020 Novel Coronavirus Situation Report, the WHO noted that the COVID-19 outbreak and response “has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’—an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
This is a stark example of the real-world impact that our online information can have. In this case, false information that we view, “like,” and share can actually help to shape the public perceptions about the pandemic, as well as our responses and decisions about how to behave. Can you think of any other recent examples that demonstrate the real-world impact of disinformation?
So, the message here is that, in addition to actual hygiene, we also need to focus on information hygiene and “ of dangerous falsehoods online by taking proactive steps to reduce their spread” (“Practice Information Hygiene”). Fact-checking, which we will discuss in the next chapter, is an example of good information hygiene. Much like hand sanitizer or hand washing, it isn’t a cure, but rather a prevention for the spread of misinformation (Caulfield, “Misinformation”).
The idea behind “info-environmentalism” is that if our information environment is polluted, we shouldn’t abandon it—instead, we should help to clean it up. That is, if we are frustrated with the content posted on platforms like Facebook or YouTube or with low-quality Google search results, why not clean it up by posting as much reliable information as we can?
Of course, a big part of this movement will involve putting pressure on the platforms themselves to act responsibly. But because the Web is a collectively-maintained and produced environment, we, as consumers and creators, can also participate in the process through direct action. Here are some examples of actions you might take to improve the information environment (Caulfield, “Info-Environmentalism”):
- Minimize your own “misinformation footprint” by being more thoughtful about what you post and share on social media. Do a quick fact-check first.
- Shift your focus from arguing points to explaining things to others.
- Edit and improve Wikipedia articles.
- Create explanatory YouTube videos.
- Post pages on blogs or wikis that provide helpful guidance on important issues.
- Post better answers on question-and-answer websites like Quora or StackExchange.
- When you do share information, use evidence and cite your sources.
Caulfield, Mike. “Info-Environmentalism: An Introduction.” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 52, no. 6, Nov/Dec. 2017. Licensed under CC BY 4.0
Caulfield, Mike. “It Can Take As Little as Thirty Seconds, Seriously.” Hapgood, 23 Jan. 2018.
Caulfield, Mike. “Misinformation Is a Norovirus and the Web Is a Cruise Ship.” Hapgood, 17 Feb. 2017.
Image: “Hand Sanitizer” by Freepik, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com
Image: “Recycle” by Freepik, adapted by Aloha Sargent, from Flaticon.com
Image: “Wash Your Hands” by United Nations COVID-19 Response is in the Public Domain, CC0
“Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV): Situation Report – 13.” World Health Organization, 2 Feb. 2020.
“Practice Information Hygiene.” The Sift, News Literacy Project, 16 Mar. 2020.
The “metaphorical handwashing you engage in to prevent the spread of misinformation." Definition from “It Can Take As Little as Thirty Seconds, Seriously” by Mike Caulfield.
A term that came into prominence during COVID, this refers to the public health strategy to slow the spread of the virus.