The Importance of Truth Workers in an Era of Factual Recession

Alison Head and John Wihbey

Image Credit: Gordon Johnson, CC0 1.0

We are quickly hitting a saturation point with “fake news.” As the term — and its corollary “post-truth” — continue to be flung about and applied to discredit almost everything we don’t agree with, our socially mediated world of information cries out for some definitions. And some real answers.

Historically, there have been many other times when emotions and deliberate falsehoods prevailed over facts and reason. Two epochs from the last century alone produced the opposing likes of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst; both masters at turning the gears of persuasion with artful precision.

1915 Propaganda Poster, Image credit: trialsanderrors, CC BY2.0

Manipulation is old hat. Over 500 years ago, Machiavelli advised the prince: “Men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”

Today, it may be comforting to use a historical lens like this to decipher our current chaotic and fast-paced times. It gives us a certain confidence that we are in control with figuring out where we are.

But as we witness teachers and professors everywhere jamming into high gear to create lesson plans, courses, and training modules in media literacy, evaluation, and scientific inquiry, our attention is being diverted. What’s missing is a deeper understanding of the origins of this post-truth world.

We need to look at how the underlying drivers translate to what students are taught, and the long-term course of action available to us now.

The online “filter bubble” — the algorithmic world that optimizes for confirmation of our prior beliefs, and maximizes the reach of emotion-triggering content — seems the chief villain in all this. But that’s mistaking symptom for cause. The “filter” that truly matters is a layer deeper; we need to look hard at the cognitive habits that make meaning out of information in the first place.

Truth to Consensus

Our ongoing research at Project Information Literacy (PIL) points to a dramatic drop in expectations, from truth to consensus among college educated youth.

Moreover, our studies tell us today’s students clearly favor brevity, consensus, and currency in the information and answers they seek for course work and solving information problems in their daily lives.

This may have been the criterion for some students 20 years ago, too. But what has changed is that students have defined their preferences for information sources in a world where credibility, veracity, and intellectual authority are far less of a given — or even an expectation from students — with each passing day.

Photo credit: Anthony Ryan, CC BY-SA 2.0

In our post-truth world, the evaluation of knowledge has become a perfunctory process facilitated by the ease of the one-search interface. Many of us, not only students, have become a nation of Google searchers looking for instantaneous matches of facts and figures rather than thoroughly interrogating the veracity of the information we find online, and reflecting on how it informs our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions.

Real News Trends

At work here are also major crosscurrents, especially in the way that news itself is being produced, disseminated, and consumed.

Even as social media and the speed of the digital ecosystem have contributed to the rise of unverified and superficial content, there have been long-term trends in the content of news that have eroded important values even in professional journalism.

First, far too many political news reports blindly deploy a “he said, she said” pattern — for every statement, no matter true or not, there is an equal and opposite negative statement. This is a form of false balance that not only obscures truth but contributes to an environment of negativity and cynicism that reduces interest in public affairs.

False balance not only obscures truth, but contributes to an environment of negativity and cynicism that reduces interest in public affairs.

Policy is neglected, while the “game” and strategy of politics is exalted. All of this is happening as the news industry contracts, with less subject-area experience in many newsrooms.

As many of us sink down lower into the worry tank of fake news and the perils of a society driven by sentiment analysis, we need to remember that every post-truth era has different drivers and, ultimately, different consequences.

This time, the factors in play are unique. They require a long-term response, not just an algorithmic tweak by the likes of Google and Facebook.

Triad of Truth Work

Together, these circumstances call for a systems-level response: The mobilization of three classes of frontline knowledge professionals — librarians, teachers, and journalists trained in Old School ethics and neutrality — or what might be considered society’s “triad” of truth-workers.

There are interconnections among these three professions, but each has its own potential roles in the days ahead:

Journalists are the most visible combatants in this struggle. The tyranny of the quote, the tweet, and the sound bite, which value speed, simplicity, conflict, and clicks over depth, are now working to undermine the profession. This is happening as serious journalistic work becomes indistinguishable from the cacophony of social media and crowd-sourced information. Many press institutions have been weakened, as public trust in the press and media business models have simultaneously been eroded. Public officials can now bypass traditional journalistic filters and gatekeepers to speak directly to the crowd. And this is occurring in tandem with a younger generation’s preference for what one student we interviewed called “the wiki voice.”

The careful scrutiny of evidence and the integration of more research and data analysis into practice — what Thomas Patterson of Harvard has called “knowledge-based journalism” — is vital. Journalism schools need to take the lead in inculcating new habits of mind.

Librarians are the facilitators and guides to the world of knowledge. Yet, many librarians lack the institutional power or budgets for truly scaling their training of information literacy skills — the fundamental competencies for finding, evaluating, and using information in the digital age. This skill set needs to become a cause not only on the margins — in the context of occasional high school civics and English classes — but as an issue front-and-center across civic life, from town halls and state legislatures to voting booths.

As Lee Rainie, the Founding Director of Pew’s Internet and American Life has said, librarians are the epitome of nodes— trusted conduits to high quality information, active champions of an accessible government online, and an informed citizenry among all ages and classes.

Teachers and educators may have the most obvious role in socializing students of all ages toward knowledge and pursuit of truth. However, the traditional disciplinary boundaries they work in — and the current cult of standardized testing — are restrictive, especially in the formative years before college. Critical thinking and problem-solving, with a heavy emphasis on statistical inference and reasoning, must be woven into the mathematical curriculum, too.

The ability to sort through complicated and conflicting information should become its own discipline (imagine Advanced Placement Information Literacy), blending research and verification skills, quantitative reasoning, logic, and philosophy.

Changing Communities

The “post-truth” problem has a complex character, specific to our times, our technologies, and our evolving learning and information-seeking habits. A clear-headed analysis is the necessary first step for fighting the assault on truth in our society today.

Our era of factual recession isn’t going away. Many in the public no longer know the difference between opinion pieces, partisan propaganda, and straight, fact-based journalism.

A response on all three fronts — journalism, libraries, and schools — is essential to beating back this massive assault on truth. Social science tells us that our decisions and judgments depend more on shared community narratives than on individual rationality.

Only by changing communities can we turn the tide. And this will require millions of our frontline knowledge workers pushing forward a long-term response.

Alison J. Head is the executive director of Project Information Literacy (PIL), a research fellow at the metaLAB (at) Harvard University, and a visiting scholar at the University of Nebraska Libraries. John Wihbey is an assistant professor at the Northeastern University School of Journalism and serves on PIL’s advisory board.