Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the concepts of mis- and disinformation, prompted by the current state of the world and observing how others get their information; in addition to my own academic interests on the subjects. What I recently found fascinating is how my musings on the topics of mis- and disinformation became relevant in an unexpected context: a series rewatch of my favorite TV show from my adolescence: Avatar: the Last Airbender. As a burgeoning information professional, I found it fascinating to watch the show through that lens and discover how much of the show relies on the global spread of information (both true and false).
Before I delve further into the discussion, I do want to take a moment to define some terms and provide a bit of context about the show for those who have not seen it. (If you are taking a bit of time off after the end of the semester and are looking for something to do, the whole series was recently added to Netflix in the US!)
While mis- and disinformation are similar, it is important to recognize the distinction between the two. Dictionary.com provides a helpful guide to distinguishing the two terms in the context of the coronavirus pandemic: misinformation is “false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead,” while disinformation is “false information, about a country’s military strength or plans, disseminated by a government or intelligence agency in a hostile act of tactical political subversion.”
And, for those who haven’t seen Avatar, it’s a fantasy series where the world is divided up into four cultures based on the four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. The story drops the viewer into the middle of a hundred-year war, instigated by the Fire Nation. The war is a key element of the main plotline and, as we know, wartime is rife with propaganda. Therefore, in the context of the show, we will be discussing mostly disinformation.
(I’m going to do my best to not spoil major plot points, but there are some spoilers below. You have been warned!)
After rewatching the show, there seem to be two major instances of disinformation throughout the series. The first takes place in season two, during the main characters’ time in the Earth Kingdom’s walled city and stronghold, Ba Sing Se. Towards the end of the second season, we learn that the powers that be in Ba Sing Se have been purposefully keeping its people, and even their king, in the dark about the war occurring outside its walls (and anyone who speaks about it risks serious punishment). This deliberate withholding of information by the political party in charge is best defined by one of the most chilling and iconic phrases from the series: “There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”
The second major instance of disinformation in Avatar is seen in season three, when the main character is in the belly of the beast, so to speak, and attends a Fire Nation school. This is an excellent opportunity for the characters, and the audience, to experience Fire Nation propaganda firsthand. For example, while taking a quiz, the main character questions the accuracy of a statement made by his teacher (which he knows to be false), and his teacher responds with: “Well, I don’t know how you could possibly know more than our national history book.” By learning that the Fire Nation national history book contains false and misleading information through this single line of dialogue, we can glean that the country’s leaders created revisionist accounts of history and spread disinformation about their nation’s past.
So, why do I bring this up? Partially because, as I explained above, I found it fascinating to reinterpret an adolescent favorite through the lens of about ten years of additional life experience plus an information-centric perspective. But, I think one of the major lessons we can learn from the examples of disinformation in Avatar that is applicable to our current coronavirus-dominated culture is taking a critical look at where we get our information, who is providing that information, and the context of that information. As seen in the Avatar examples, while it may be simpler to get information from a single source, you can’t always guarantee that the source is reliable. This leads to the importance of multiple sources and perspectives when it comes to gathering information, despite the risk of misinformation that may still exist, especially on the Internet. One advantage we have over the characters in Avatar who were subject to the above disinformation (for the most part) is readily available access to information and information professionals, instead of a mere sunken desert library and vengeful owl spirit.
As current and future information professionals, I think it would behoove us to continue to observe how information is accessed and spread throughout this chaotic time in order to better understand how we should teach information literacy to our patrons and students so they can best take advantage of the resources available to them. And, in my opinion, this is an excellent opportunity to brush up on mis- and disinformation, not only so we can spot it in our lives, but so we may help our patrons recognize it, too.
Jane Behre is an MLIS student at the University of Maryland. At UMD, she is the coordinator for the First Year Book Program and a member of the Research & Teaching Fellowship’s 2021 cohort. She holds a B.A. in Theatre from Barnard College, Columbia University, and worked professionally backstage for two years before deciding to make the switch to library science. Within the field, her interests include academic librarianship, research & instruction, and information literacy. In her free time, she enjoys cooking for her friends and family, listening to podcasts, and, of course, going to the theater.