International Women’s Day, internet arguments and a surprise information literacy lesson

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so naturally there were plenty of people who feel the need to lash out online when asked to consider the situation of women for one day a year.

One video I saw doing the rounds was this one from “Prager University”, released just in time for this special day. Watch it if you’re curious.

The video claims to debunk the “myth” of the gender wage gap. It has nice production values, charts and numbers, and has the word University in it. Unfortunately, those factors are enough for it to pass the “trustworthy” test for a lot of folks.

I think this video makes a good example of why it’s important to critical evaluate sources. I can imagine students using this or similar videos to inform their arguments at a university level. It looks and sounds similar to other educational videos that you might be able to use in a class presentation or project, but it’s very different.

Let’s ask a few classic questions to help us evaluate this source.

Who is the author/responsible organisation? Spoiler alert: Prager University is not a real university. It doesn’t even have students! It’s basically a YouTube channel that styles itself with the word “university” in its name. But don’t believe me – believe the note at the bottom of the organisation’s website in a blue font on a blue background: “PRAGER UNIVERSITY IS NOT AN ACCREDITED ACADEMIC INSTITUTION AND DOES NOT OFFER CERTIFICATIONS OR DIPLOMAS. BUT IT IS A PLACE WHERE YOU ARE FREE TO LEARN.” Cool. Unfortunately I saw a few people yesterday link to this video as “proof” that their beliefs were legitimately backed up by research from this university. They retreated when someone pointed out the “not a real university” thing (and hey, it wasn’t me – someone got there before me, so there is hope for humanity’s critical evaluation skills.)

What is the agenda/purpose of the video? PragerU explain on their “About Us” page that their mission and vision is to “explain and spread what we call “Americanism” through the power of the Internet. Our five-minute videos are conservative sound bites that clarify profoundly significant and uniquely American concepts for more than 100 million people each year” and to provide “intellectual ammunition they need to defend and spread those values.” Provide intellectual ammunition. Spread “Americanism”. Ponder those phrases. Then compare them to “inform and educate”. Obviously the video is putting forward a certain point of view, informed by a worldview that PragerU wants to defend.

Does the information have any biases? Hahahahaha. HAHAHAHAHA.

Does it cite its sources? Where do they come from? This is the tricky one. The video references real studies and statistics. That makes it legit, right? But ask yourself: are the conclusions the video makes backed up by the facts, or do they put forward their own assertions to argue their agenda? Anyone who’s fluffed their way through an essay knows that you can cherry-pick references to back up any argument you wish you make, it doesn’t make it a good argument.

In this age of “alternative facts”, we’re more divided than ever and just seek and share information that backs up our existing beliefs, or worse, gears us up to attack others and their points of view. PragerU seems set up explicitly to foster this, providing “intellectual ammunition” for Facebook soldiers. With so much biased information out there, masquerading as authoritative, it’s so hard to seek and find the truth! I’m not sure people even want the truth sometimes.

Please, think about the information you hear/read/watch. It’s more important now than ever.