By Alison E Hicks, on 8 March 2022
We noted two key information behaviours in our phase 2 study. In response to the turbulent and seemingly unending nature of the crisis, participants began to avoid and resist information. These techniques can be viewed as safeguarding tools that allowed participants to rearrange their information environments during stressful and uncertain transition during the pandemic.
The intensity of this time meant that for many participants, actively avoiding information formed the major strategy to address saturation and mitigate the information risk of being overwhelmed. Avoiding information creates the conditions and space to reduce the noise that is created by the pandemic’s accelerated information environments. The space created enabled participants to contextualise and reflect upon the narratives of the new norm and reconcile new information with current knowledge.
Participants reported avoiding information in several ways, including:
- Altering information routines (e.g., introducing time limits on COVID focussed conversation, following ‘happy news’ accounts on Twitter).
- Reducing engagement with certain types of information (e.g., only seeking out statistics, moving news channels to find less disheartening news, muting opinion driven WhatsApp channels, deleting social media apps).
- Limiting exposure to information by retreating into community (e.g., only socialising with others who WFH, reliance on small group of trusted individuals, local rather than national news).
The range of strategies employed to mediate saturation means that information avoidance is consequently understood to form an active and agentic strategy that participants employ to protect their fragile mental health rather than a dangerous withdrawal from society. Agency is referenced in participants’ decisions to mitigate overload, and saturation can consequently be conceptualised as the catalyst for information avoidance that occurs when external demands for information exceed people’s capacity to make meaning.
As the pandemic continues, however, avoidance becomes inextricably entangled with the idea of resistance, as participants note how they start to mediate saturation by resisting official governmental discourses. Often becoming more common in later lockdowns and when temporary rules and regulations alter, resistance is consequently predicated upon the growing fragmentation of risk rather than a wholesale rejection of authority or expertise. In this sense, saturation creates the conditions for resistance as people seek to exert agency and influence over the narratives that attempt to define them.
One of the main reasons why participants report avoiding government information is when official advice is perceived to put their own health or that of their families in danger. For example, when the government employed a variety of coercive measures to encourage people to support the hospitality industry, participants noted ignoring government advice to socialise because they did not feel it was “worth” the risk to their health.
Participant refusal to engage with government advice illustrates how risk discourses must also be accessible to people; in this situation, the economic argument that lay behind official advice did not cohere with participants’ values about what constituted acceptability and what constituted harm. Illustrating how perceptions of risk are mediated through sociocultural processes, these reactions also illustrate how risk is shaped by affective judgement as people weigh up what they consider to be threatening to themselves and their community.
At other times, however, resistance to government advice becomes more overt with a handful of participants indicating how they deliberately resisted official recommendations about risk and safety to protect their own well-being. For example, avoiding information on restrictions out of risk of knowing they would have to give up something benefitting their mental health, and, not downloading the Test and Trace app because they feared it would curtail their independence. Our full findings provide further evidence of the role that the body and emotions play in the assessment of risk.
Resistance can be understood as both nuanced and subtle as people start to mitigate the risk of being overwhelmed by saturated information environments through the negotiation of powerful discourses. Focussing attention on participants’ changing relationship with instrumental understandings of risk, the emphasis on interaction illustrates how resistance is centred on reflexivity as people weigh up and respond to discourses that attempt to regulate their behaviour.
By Alison E Hicks, on 4 March 2022
We believe our recent COVID work could have a big impact on how information literacy (IL) practice and pedagogy are theorised and actioned. For example, this work hopes to challenge the language used in IL research, such as labelling information avoidance strategies as “pathologies” (Bawden and Robinson, 2009). Such terms see elements of IL practice as abnormalities and deviations from a healthy condition, rather than valuable safeguarding practices. We contend that the medicalisation of IL risks giving impetus to deficit driven concerns that have structured the field.
- Implications for IL practice
Affirmative views of IL are challenged through the critical role that reactive activities play within this study, including helping people to go on during an emotionally draining time or to weigh up diverging risk discourses. Renewed interest reactive practices consequently raise questions about the positioning of proactive information activity as the sole means to mediate the affective dimensions of practice. The push and pull seen in these safeguarding information practices means that findings from this study necessarily challenge previous ideas of IL and empowerment.
- Implications for IL pedagogy
We must further discussion paid to empowerment and examine the complexity of enablement, particularly in emotional intense contexts. The importance that this study accords to the reactive elements of IL also has implications for teaching practices. Findings from this study demonstrate that if IL teaching is to succeed during times of transition and crisis, we must move beyond merely focussing on what enables the practice.
Recap of our Phase 2 paper ‘Saturation, acceleration and information pathologies: the conditions that influence the emergence of information literacy safeguarding practice in COVID-19-environments’
By Alison E Hicks, on 21 February 2022
Our phase 2 study has been published in the Journal of Documentation. This furthers the work from phase 1 and identifies the conditions that influence the emergence of information literacy (IL) as a safeguarding practice. Again, it is qualitative research, comprised of one-to-one in-depth interviews conducted during the UK’s second and third lockdown (between November 2020 and February 2021).
The phase 2 research examines the longer-term implications of operating in crisis mode, with the unabating nature of this crisis representing an opportunity to explore how practices unfold and evolve to accommodate fluid times of uncertainty. It is also an opportunity to examine transition in greater detail, including how it bends during ongoing crisis.
It interrogates the theme of safeguarding during the transitional space between the intensification and maintaining phases, where information strategies appeared to represent “pathologies” (Bawden and Robinson, 2009). Centred on desensitisation and saturation, these strategies stood out due to the shift in emphasis from proactive mediation and documentation of the intensification phase. It led us to consider the reactive elements of IL practice, acting in response rather than in preparation.
In phase 2 we investigated what happens when people are required to operate in crisis mode over time, including the longer-term impact of crisis information dissemination on the development of understandings about risk, and what comes into view during this operationalisation. Of particular interest were the implications that safeguarding has on IL practice and how the intensifying phase enables or constrains transition. This study allowed us to incorporate experiences from later lockdowns into the sample and people who had experienced COVID-19.
We identify activities that emerged after the initial lockdown, created by accelerated information dissemination and messaging strategies, including avoiding, resisting and boundary marking. These could be seen as indicative of a population disengaged and burnt out; however, we argue that these should be viewed as vital safeguarding activities and a strategy of empowerment that is currently missing from enabling-focused discourse in IL.
Findings show that participants began to actively create boundaries between themselves and information to reduce “noise”. This sense of feeling overwhelmed led to the creation of limits around the types of information or information sharing platforms use in their practice. The gradual withdrawal from the pandemic information environment is of particular interest because information activities such as avoidance are often viewed negatively within IL discourse, instead of being seen as part of safeguarding during crisis.
- Saturation and Noise
Saturation is identified as an outcome of the intensifying period, marked by desperate attempts to rebuild information landscapes disrupted through the emergence of rapidly changing and socially mandated instrumental information environments. Saturation, representing a desensitised state, can describe a situation where people become overwhelmed by the abundance of information and the continual exposure to experiences and viewpoints. This study suggests that once participants become saturated with information, their intent becomes to either actively avoid information or to diffuse the information. Saturation information strategies look to reduce the “noise” created by the persistent flow of information.
Noise is exacerbated by the encompassing nature of information creation, dissemination, and circulation. Noise is then linked to the rapidity of change and the need to stay up to date with changing government rules. As well as the accelerated levels of information dissemination across multiple platforms. Participant’s anxieties show information seeking can lead to saturation and the need to develop strategies to deal with an onslaught of information.
- Avoidance and Resistance
The intensity of this time meant that for many participants, actively avoiding information formed the major strategy to address saturation and mitigate the information risk of being overwhelmed. As the pandemic continues, however, avoidance becomes inextricably entangled with the idea of resistance, as participants note how they start to mediate saturation by resisting official governmental discourses. Often becoming more common in later lockdowns and when temporary rules and regulations alter, resistance is consequently predicated upon the growing fragmentation of risk rather than a wholesale rejection of authority or expertise.
- Agency and Risk
We note that the agentic information focussed work of safeguarding extends to include both information avoidance and resistance as people look to mitigate overload and anxiety associated with operating in crisis mode. Transition literature has tended to equate mediation of change with proactive information activity. However, transition must also be understood as facilitated through reflective processes. Information avoidance and resistance can be understood as facilitating transition by forming how people shape their information environment, creating a protective buffer zone where people can negotiate the emotional impact of change.
Many risks have been produced during the pandemic with avoidance and resistance strategies having an important impact on how risk is embedded and brought into view. Risk perception has been linked to a lay-expert divide – an “emotional” public fails to see risk laid out by “rational” scientists. This study shows, however, that emotional responses (feeling of fear, anger etc) also play an important role in sensemaking for individuals, rather than creating a distortion of rational judgement.
By Maud Cooper, on 24 August 2021
Our first study, published in the Journal of Documentation, found that lockdown catalysed a period of transition, which is defined as a complex and iterative process of reconstruction shaped by participants’ growing awareness of information dissemination. This is represented in three phases, and constitute an enmeshed, iterative and evolving set of arrangements, actions and activities that allowed information and knowledge to intensify and stabilise as governmental, medical, economic and social conditions continued to evolve.
Phase 1: Unfolding
In phase one, the COVID-19 information environment begins to unfold in both the participants’ understanding of ‘pandemic theatre’ and a sense of disbelief. Incredulity meant that participants started to focus on authoritative professional resources that would invoke confidence and direction. This includes government and scientific sources found mostly through first-generation technologies (such as TV and radio). However, the complexity of the situation meant these proved to be insufficient, and participants noted that they supplemented traditional media with information from on-demand news sites. For some, this approach helped ‘build a picture’, however, for others it became ‘all consuming’. Demonstrating the anxiety of the time as participants sought to find a sense of control, and create a form of ‘risk ritual’. ‘Observing’ also played an important part in helping participants to recognise the potential danger to themselves as well as to build an appropriate physical response to the pandemic.
Phase 2: Intensification
Phase two formed a period of intensification that was marked by increasing anxiety and stress as people actively tried to ‘grasp’ the pandemic and understand the potential short- and long term implications. It also indicated more complex processes of production and co-production in disrupted everyday practices as participants started to form new information landscapes. Participants began ‘hoovering’ up information from across media to get every ‘scrap’ of news, often pooling and mediating this together within their communities, especially as distrust in government information grew. At the same time, concerns about the wellbeing of family and friends meant that many participants reported deciding to withhold or refrain from sharing information that was perceived to be upsetting. Finally, ‘being present’ is evidenced by creative and reflexive responses to lockdown life and further situated participants in relation to the discourses and actors of the pandemic information environment.
Phase 3: Stabilising
Phase three emerged as a more stable yet increasingly desensitised stage with participants understanding the information sources, practices and activities required to maintain an informed view of the pandemic. ‘Compartmentalising’ became a core information practice, as participants became ‘saturated and overwhelmed’ by information. For some, this was a self-preserving or wellness strategy, for others, it was a way to continue to access the information that they needed, as the volume of information continued to increase. This stage included ‘tapering off’, wherein participants, with an increased sense of stability in this new environment, began narrowing down or targeting information sources, as they felt more confident that they would not miss anything new.
The full paper can be found here.
Recap of our Phase 1 paper ‘Contextualising Risk: The unfolding information work and practices of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.’
By Maud Cooper, on 16 August 2021
Earlier this year our phase 1 paper was published in the Journal of Documentation. This paper constitutes the first set of findings from our research project and looks in detail at the first three months of the pandemic as the UK entered lockdown.
The paper begins by giving context to the changing information environments during the beginning of the pandemic period, defined as the UK regulations and guidance during the 13-week lockdown from March-June 2020. This included the closing of schools and non-essential businesses, the limitations on face-to-face social interactions, and the encouragement to work from home as well as advice for those especially vulnerable to ‘shield’. Explaining that these radical redefinitions of everyday life were intensified through the UK’s relative lack of experience with pandemic situations.
As information researchers, we were interested in how people transitioned into newly created pandemic information environments including how people’s information literacy practices emerged in the context of the risks and uncertainties that were produced through the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the community. With this framing, we highlighted that we were particularly interested in how participants constructed their understandings of risk as well as the ways in which these uncertainties created the context and the conditions through which participants operationalised their information practices.
To examine these ideas, the study took the following question as a starting point: What has informed the UK public’s understanding about the COVID-19 pandemic and what information practices and literacies of information came into view during the early days of the pandemic and the subsequent countrywide lockdown? This question defines information literacy as a complex practice that, in modern and fluid information environments, has become a critical literacy with relational, situational, recursive, material and embodied dimensions. Further, it argues that knowledge about risk is mediated through social and cultural frameworks that shape understanding about what information and knowledges are valued and what type of information work and practice may be operationalised to achieve specific ends. With this, we attempted to understand:
- The ways the practice is constructed and then enacted in relation to the social setting through which the participant is situated.
- How participants break down information challenges related to understanding risk during the pandemic
- The non-human actors that support their practice and performance
- How the practice draws from expertise, knowledge and local/nuanced ways of knowing and is thus expressed and articulated.
Findings from this study demonstrated that the lockdown catalysed a period of transition, which is defined as a complex and iterative process of reconstruction that is shaped by participants’ growing awareness of information dissemination. These three phases are: Unfolding, Intensifying, and Maintaining. Each of these stages or periods represent an enmeshed, iterative and evolving set of arrangements, actions and activities that allowed information and knowledge to intensify and stabilise as governmental, medical, economic and social conditions continued to evolve.
Transition into the novel and complex pandemic information environment is subsequently characterised in terms of safeguarding, which forms the overarching category of this study. As participants become involved with lockdown life, the precarity of the time created a number of risks for health, employment, and social life. Health risks, which included risk to their own health as well as the risk of overwhelming the NHS, were supplemented by the risk of not being able to access basic provisions, legal risks of breaking new laws, and the emotional risk of losing access to support networks. The lockdowns also brought financial risks, as people were forced to furlough or were made redundant – and how this could affect those reliant on them for support (both professional and personal). From this perspective, the concept of risk is fluid, iterative, complex and multidimensional and is dependent on affordances that influence how people understand risk in relation to social conditions and arrangements. Drawing upon information sources, participants sought to mitigate and safeguard against risk. Shaped by the overarching contextualisation of each of the transitional phases that characterise the pandemic information experience, safeguarding is consequently catalysed by risks produced during lockdown and centred upon protecting self, others and institutions.
Themes of positioning, agency and transition emerged as participants mitigated risks via the agentic performance of safeguarding. Context is key to understanding how information literacy, as shown through safeguarding, becomes interpretable within the pandemic. The paper states that the unfolding context of the pandemic can therefore be viewed as three intra-connected dimensions that shape the information landscape and through which a construction of risk emerges:
- Cultural discursive (e.g. government briefings and official messaging)
- Material-economic (e.g. corporeal or physical information)
- Communal (e.g. sharing of information through social media and family/friend networks)
Interlinked and entwined, these three dimensions enmesh in the social site to shape how the practice of information literacy is constructed.
The paper concludes that as COVID-19 and its consequences infiltrated all aspects of people’s lives, a first concern is to safeguard against health, economic, and social risks. It was a time that can be defined by anxiety and uncertainty and severely altered the conditions in which people operate. Findings also suggest that the UK’s public understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic was shaped through the production of risk that unfolded across three enmeshed dimensions to construct a practice of safeguarding, which illustrates information literacy practices within the pandemic context. Enacting these three stages suggests that from an information perspective, risk is viewed as a temporal and spatial enactment that becomes meaningful as the pandemic progresses.
The full paper can be found here.
‘Risky research and researcher risk: Reflecting on emotionally involved information research through the lens of COVID-19’ presentation at ASIS&T Europe conference
By Maud Cooper, on 2 August 2021
This June, Alison presented a paper entitled ‘Risky research and researcher risk’ in which she drew upon the project’s examination of COVID-19 information practices to discuss the experience of studying risk from a researcher perspective, including the impact that emotionally engaged scholarship might have upon information science. The paper starts from the premise that the growing recognition that risk must be understood as something shaped through social and cultural processes creates a need to establish more qualitative explorations of risk within information studies. This, however, exposes the methodological challenges, including the potential to expose researchers to the need to navigate sensitive and emotional narratives. Alison used the experience of conducting the research into pandemic information practices as a lens to discuss emotionally engaged online research and presented themes such as invasive co-presence and therapeutic detachment, which reflect the affective implications of carrying out risk research within a socially distanced setting.
Alison came to these themes using notes and memos from the empirical research and reflections with researcher partner Annemaree Lloyd which she supplemented with a review of literature examining researcher well-being and health within sensitive research contexts.
Previous work has concentrated on the importance of building a co-presence in research, however, it has lacked considerations into the impact of risk research might have on the researcher. The value of this paper consequently lies in the work that it does to extend methodological conversations about everyday research methods, including the challenges that are involved in mediating sensitive online research interactions. Further, the focus on the researcher opens up considerations into the impact of emotion upon information research.
Alison’s reflections will be of interest to researchers exploring risk, including pandemic, disaster, and crisis situations, and those who are looking to explore engagement in sensitive topics. The socially distanced nature of COVID-19 studies means that this paper will also be of interest to researchers looking to carry out more emotionally responsive online qualitative research.
An extended abstract of Alison’s paper can be found here.
By Maud Cooper, on 23 July 2021
The first output from our Risk and Resilience project is a poster that we presented at ASIS&T 2020. Awarded second prize in the poster contest, this poster highlighted the initial vision, methodology and preliminary findings from our first study. More specifically, the poster elaborated on how risk, defined as a threat to health, wellbeing, financial and employment stability, pervades the COVID-19 pandemic, and how this intersects with people’s access and ability to engage with appropriate information.
Online interviews, conducted from May-June 2020, examined the lived experience of people as the pandemic progressed. Employing constructivist grounded theory methods to identify themes and narratives about people’s experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the poster explored areas such as, awareness of emerging risk, and experiences of changing conditions that impact working, educational, well-being and caring practices. Participants highlighted the range of risks they encountered in the early months of the pandemic, including, social, economic, educational, and employment. To mitigate these risks, participants engaged in several social, corporeal and textual information activities to help them map and orient themselves within a new environment as well as to reconcile existing practices.
Many information forces were emerging at once, with participants attempting to navigate conspiracy theories and misinformation alongside the frequently changing legal requirements and social expectations. Early findings suggested varying degrees of information overload and renewed attention on avoiding and ignoring information as people mediate mental health and other ongoing challenges. At the time of publication, the analysis was still ongoing, however, these emerging findings provided connections to global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, while further establishing foundational knowledge that will be useful for civil contingency, emergency services, health and education professions looking to support prepared and informed communities.
The document can be viewed on the ASIS&T site here.
By Alison E Hicks, on 22 March 2021
We are pleased to announce that our research team has received funding through the British Academy/ Leverhulme to continue our work looking at risk and resilience in pandemic information environments! This project investigates how people use information, digital, and media literacy to (1) develop an understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic, (2) mitigate health and financial risk and, (3) develop resilience during precarity. The website will start to detail findings from our original project (May-Dec 2020) as well as themes from the next round of research. Watch this space!