Of note in the reading that I’ve been doing following Bruce Schneier’s piece about Russian kill chains in information operations and his later piece “Defending Democracies Against Information Attacks”, in danah boyd’s talk at 2019’s Digital Public Library of America conference, I have just now learned of the term “agnotology”.
But what if ignorance is strategically manufactured? What if the tools of knowledge production are perverted to enable ignorance? In 1995, Robert Proctor and Iain Boal coined the term “agnotology” to describe the strategic and purposeful production of ignorance. In an edited volume called Agnotology, Proctor and Londa Schiebinger collect essays detailing how agnotology is achieved. Whether we’re talking about the erasure of history or the undoing of scientific knowledge, agnotology is a tool of oppression by the powerful.
In this fascinating talk, she remarks on the bizarre moment when “a black conservative commentator testifying before the House that the Southern strategy never happened and that white nationalism is an invention of the Democrats to ‘scare black people’?” (danah gracefully left the name off of the story of this liar, it was Dana Owens) and carefully enumerates the steps that the coward that murdered fifty one people in New Zealand took to manipulate the world’s media. danah uses this to then pivot to the digital algorithms that shovel information towards those that would consume it. Although she spends little time on the specifics of this, it is, in my opinion, the single most important part of her talk. Her closing line to the digital librarians summarizes the dangers that come with simply trusting that busy people will have enough time or energy to sift through misinformation to find what is factual and true, and hoping that they do not run afoul of search engine algorithms that are intentionally directing people to information that may or may not be valid or correct.
You will not achieve an informed public simply by making sure that high quality content is publicly available and presuming that credibility is enough while you wait for people to come find it. You have to understand the networked nature of the information war we’re in, actively be there when people are looking, and blanket the information ecosystem with the information people need to make informed decisions.