Metaliteracy is the term used to describe how information online is read, interpreted, and spread. To be metaliterate, you need to have the ability to evaluate information for any bias, reliability, and credibility, and then assess your role in producing and spreading information as well. This may seem intuitive and as if it’s something only younger people need to consider. But achieving metaliteracy is harder than you think, particularly for those who didn’t grow up with the internet at their fingertips.
It is increasingly critical for everyone to assess their own metaliteracy and continuously work to improve it. This will not only prevent you from falling prey to “fake news,” but it can impact your hireability, your mindset, and your ability to navigate an increasingly online society.
What is Metaliteracy?
Metaliteracy is, at its core, pedagogical. It focuses on an individual’s method of learning and — perhaps more importantly — participating in today’s complex information environment. Breaking it down etymologically, “meta” is Greek for after, so metaliteracy is what is needed after, or beyond, the basic literacies of reading and writing. Obviously, those skills are still critical, but they are not enough when we are so active in online information environments.
Almost everything we see when we go online is an information environment. Social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, news outlets, even a site as inane as TikTok are all ways to absorb and perpetuate information. So as you’re scrolling through posts about your friends’ new grandbaby, or forwarding the latest meme you found entertaining, you are participating in an online information environment.
As a formal concept, metaliteracy was developed and expanded upon by State University of New York academics Thomas P. Mackey and Trudi E. Jacobson (the latter of whom we interviewed for our article on MOOCs). Their goal is to better prepare people to be informed consumers and responsible producers of information. In their course Metaliteracy: Empowering Yourself in a Connected World (offered free through Coursera.org), Jacobson emphasizes the large responsibility we all assume when we participate in social media:
“In the past, to disseminate information or knowledge, you needed to write a book or be some kind of credentialed expert. But thanks to the prevalence of the internet, all you need is access and the ability to hit ‘share.’”
So for Jacobson, metaliteracy is a way of thinking both about the assessment of information that you’re using and consuming, as well as your responsibility as a creator of information.
Why Metaliteracy is Critical For People Over 55
Protect Yourself and Others
Metaliteracy is considered one of the most effective tools for combating false or misleading content presented as news. It goes without saying why this is important, but here is some context: In 2016, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll and found that 62% of adults got their news on social media. (This article breaks the data down into demographics and other factors, and it’s fascinating.) Additionally, a majority of people got their news from one social media site and only a tiny minority sought information from news sites or across different platforms. That means that a lot of people were being informed by some questionable “news” sources, and then possibly sharing it, perpetuating the cycle of disinformation. It’s no coincidence that this poll was conducted in 2016, the year “fake news” became part of American parlance.
Even students who are considered “digital natives” (aka: those who were raised with the internet) are surprisingly easily duped by misinformation on social media, according to researchers at Stanford University. This illustrates the difference between digital literacy — the effective use of digital technologies — and metaliteracy. Yes, we need to learn how to use new technologies, but we also need to go one step further and question them. Metaliteracy is the ability to question sources and intentions, analyze how information is being packaged and delivered, and then assess our own ethical responsibility when deciding whether to share it.
It Affects Your Hireability
In 2021, Forbes published the article “Why Baby Boomers Need Digital Literacy to Defend Themselves Against the Retirement Crisis,” written by contributor Matt Klein. Klein argues that the number of people expecting to work past the age of 65 (which is increasing thanks to extended life spans and limited retirement funds) are facing increased age discrimination due to their lack of digital literacy. To compound the issue, automation of many jobs has led economists to predict that in 2027, the U.S. workforce will tip into “gig-majority.” In other words, there will be more contractors, freelancers, and contingent workers than full-time employees. Klein asserts that baby boomers need to develop better digital literacy (and here we add metaliteracy) in order to stay relevant in the gig economy.
A Means for Social Justice
When misinformation runs rampant, the toxic impacts on a society are far-reaching. All the harmful “-isms” — racism, sexism, ageism, etc — are perpetuated by falsehoods that are commonly spread through sometimes seemingly innocuous posts. When you consider the potential societal disconnect that can occur when you leave the workforce, it’s not hard to see how retirees could be susceptible to believing these falsehoods and acquiring new prejudices over time. If you’re at all interested in maintaining your elasticity of thought and staying open-minded, metaliteracy is one way to do so.