Want People to Vote? Then We Have to Talk About Digital Literacy.

As one day melts into the next and the nightmare that is the year 2020 continues to churn on, we somehow find ourselves a mere 44 days out from Election Day. In the midst of a pandemic, nationwide protests over racial injustice, and now, a contentious political battle over a newly opened Supreme Court seat in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg‘s passing, we are set up for what will likely be one of the most intense election cycles in our nation’s recent memory.

As we move ever closer to election night, cries continue to ring out from politicians, celebrities, and community leaders alike about how crucial it is that we vote; and I agree. As flawed as our political system is, voting still remains as one of our only measures of power as a collective, and if we choose to not use it, it will be that much easier to squander.

Which is why it is so alarming to remember that 41.9% of eligible U.S. voters did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. There are many reasons for this, such as lack of childcare, long working hours, and general skepticism of the election process. It’s a far larger topic than this piece could possibly do justice to, however, it is clear that having such a huge portion of the American public disengaged with the political system is a problem we must work to address.

When I say “we,” I mean everyone, but today I specifically mean library workers and information professionals. One significant factor in bolstering public engagement with politics is people’s ability to access and understand information about the election, and how it is personally relevant to them. This means accurate information about the candidates and their policies; and also, information about how to register to vote, sign up for mail-in ballots, and directions to polling places. All of these factors must align in order for someone to successfully submit their ballot. Thus, we have to assess better means of distributing this information to folks who have not found it on their own. In order to do that, we must look at how Americans get their news, if they are getting it at all.

The two top preferred news sources for adults in the U.S. are TV (local, network, and cable news) and the internet. However, it is also important to note that 68% or about two-thirds of Americans get at least some news from social media sites, with 18% using them as their preferred source. This raises several concerns, the most obvious being accuracy of information, which most users acknowledge as an issue. However, research data also suggests a correlation between use of social media as a primary news source and lack of political engagement. Those who are more dependent on social media as a news source are also more likely to not follow major news stories. This means that there is a gap between the information people are accessing, and the relevancy they find in that information to their personal lives. Even when a social media user encounters a news story they find interesting, they must question its validity, and are ultimately left uninspired to research any further. 

Another important factor in this equation is how people access the internet. According to a 2019 study from the Pew Research Center, 90% of Americans are reported to be internet users, however, only 79% have access to the internet in their home. This means 21% of Americans either have limited or no access to the internet. We can only assume that internet usage has increased since shelter-in-place orders have gone into effect, forcing families and businesses to move their lives online, but certainly not to the most disenfranchised groups. And at the very least, this leaves us with many more new digital learners. In addition to this, Americans increasingly prefer mobile devices over laptops and desktops to access their information. Of those surveyed, the top two things people found would be the most helpful to them to parse information are unlimited data plans for their cellphones and more reliable home internet services. 

It is unsurprising that folks who struggle to maintain a connection to the internet tend to also be those who are marginalized in other ways. Black and Latinx Americans are the most affected by this disparity. Conversely, it is precisely these communities who are most eager to learn. As the Pew Research Center puts it, these communities make up 53% of what they call “Eager and Willing” learners. This group “exhibit(s) the highest levels of interest in news and trust in key information sources, as well as strong interest in learning when it comes to their own digital skills and literacy. They are not necessarily confident of their digital abilities, but they are anxious to learn” (Horrigan, 2017). A pressing divide that must be bridged is the one that lies between these eager learners and their access to digital tools.

So, what can we, as library workers and information professionals, take away from this? First, in order to address the public’s need for information, we must meet them where they’re at: online. One of the top wishes Americans have about library services is more programming to teach folks to use computers, mobile devices, and other digital tools. We must continue to devise new strategies to provide the public with these crucial skills. 

The other piece of this is trickier. As time progresses, Americans have become increasingly wary of the both the U.S. political system, and the media outlets who report on it. Importantly, research finds that those who are the most distrustful of information sources also tend to be the least politically engaged. There isn’t one solution that can address this, and certainly not one that our profession can do alone. However, we can continue to find the most user-centric avenues to provide Americans with reliable information and resources. 

Political tides will change with time, but one thing remains true: people need information. Let us continue to uphold the principles we hold so dear, to provide people with information they can trust, and fight harder to include all voices in American politics. 

Photo by Matthew Guay on Unsplash

Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @marylizallen for a random collection of depressing thoughts and cat memes.

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