Procon.org is a new set of websites claiming to promote informed citizenship by providing “both sides of the issue” in a number of topics of debate or political interest. Its pages are designed so that students will easily notice all of the indications of reliability that information literacy instructors have taught them to look for in a web page: the group’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status and non-partisanship is prominently located in the upper left; contact information is easy to find; it’s at a dot org domain; and it is written in cool and measured prose. And the organizing principle of the site – providing the “pros and cons” – especially invites students to trust it.
I find Procon.org’s websites dangerous for undergraduates but useful in educating librarians to be better information literacy instructors.
Spending a good chunk of time with these sites provides an object lesson in how control over the way a question is framed and control over what information gets applied to it can go a long way in determining how people answer that question. The site presents questions to students, such as “Is the United States a Christian Nation?,” provides pro- and con- statements relating to them, and lets students feel that they are answering these questions for themselves. It is what you might call “guided thinking.”
Procon.org’s claim of non-partisanship and neutrality is a deceptive strategy designed to influence students’ thinking about topics like the war in Iraq, homosexuality, the ACLU, medical marijuana, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Its presentation appears at first glance to be so neutral and harmless that I fear many librarians will be fooled by it. Certainly many students will.
It is potentially very useful, however, in demonstrating the power over a debate that you enjoy if you define its terms and control the information that’s brought to bear. That’s a principle that any librarian doing information literacy instruction should understand deeply.
Links to Procon.org’s issue sites are showing up all over Wikipedia as “see also” resources. So far Wikipedia editors don’t appear to be wise to the site and its strategy of disguising bias; at first glance it seems very much in line with Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy, which is all about providing balanced views (and a first glance is all that many people have time for when checking the edits of pages they’re watching on Wikipedia).
Don’t be fooled by this site. I encourage librarians to use it in information literacy instruction as an example of a biased website. A website can have all of the features students are traditionally taught to look for to establish reliability and still be propaganda. This site is an example of why we need to go a little deeper in our teaching about how to evaluate websites and how to detect bias.
It’s a sickening deception.