Our Best Hope Against Fake News? Your Local Librarian
When I was in grade five, the librarian at my school saw my passion for tech and encouraged me to enter a district-wide programming contest. I’d spent every recess for months scrunched over the library computer, learning the rudiments of BASIC from Mr. Adamson. Against the odds, I took home top prize, an Apple IIc personal computer — an unbelievable luxury for a kid in the mid ’80s. It was a turning point for me and the start of a lifelong love of tech.
Fast-forward to the present, and the way we get information has radically changed. In an age when you can look anything up on Google, some people are asking if librarians have gone the way of payphones, fax machines and encyclopedia sets. A recent article in USA Today went so far as to assert that librarians will be extinct by 2030. I sincerely hope not. I firmly believe that librarians today play a more critical role than ever — one that often goes unacknowledged.
Being a librarian goes well beyond checking out books. One of the most important parts of the job is teaching information literacy. The American Library Association defines information literacy as the ability to “locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information.” Yes, this sounds dry. But in today’s age of fake news, knowing where to turn for reliable data — and being able to distinguish between objective and biased sources — might just be one of the most important skills of our time. It’s also one that’s sorely lacking.
The high price of information overload
The online revolution of the last 20 years has made our lives better in countless ways. But it has inundated us with information as never before. We’re flooded with news and commentary every time we look at our phones — much of it algorithmically slanted to confirm our existing biases. Without a critical framework to evaluate the reliability of all this information and to assess its underlying agenda, it’s easy to get disoriented and to reach mistaken, even dangerous conclusions.
I’m acutely aware of this coming from the social media world. A majority of US adults now get their news in real time from social media feeds, according to The Pew Research Center. The challenge is, of course, that these are largely uncurated spaces. There’s no gatekeeper on Facebook or Twitter vetting what shows up on your news feed for accuracy or objectivity. What you see is dictated largely by what your connections have clicked on and engaged with or who has paid to put an ad in your stream. It’s becoming little different with television and newspaper news media, many of which have abandoned their once objective platforms to support their own bias.
In the absence of a critical eye, falsehoods can, and do, thrive. And the consequences are very real. During the 2016 U.S. election cycle, Russian specialists spread slanted and patently false stories via hundreds of social media accounts, all in an effort to undermine the democratic process. By many accounts, they succeeded. And this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. The use of bots, trolls and paid ads to deliberately disseminate misinformation has become a new reality.
Fighting back with information literacy
Part of our response to this challenge has to be technological — more robust algorithms and smarter tools to sniff out manipulation. Part of the responsibility may rest with the social networks themselves to better police their content. But, for now and for the foreseeable future, solving this problem depends in large part on boosting our own media savvy. And that’s where the discussion turns back to librarians and the role of information literacy.
To date, some of the best, grassroots responses to the tide of fake and misleading news have come from the library community. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions put together a handy “How To Spot Fake News” infographic, which has been translated into 37 languages and used around the world. Librarians at Indiana University East developed an interactive fake news website, complete with tips on fact-checking and a deconstruction of an article about “hollow earth.” In webinars and slide decks, librarians are fighting back against misinformation.
In the years ahead, it’s not hard to see the role of librarian evolving further. What’s needed — more than just a pamphlet or a set of guidelines — is a sustained, comprehensive effort to train a new generation in media and information literacy for the social media era. This isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s an urgent and ongoing need — something that should be integrated into primary- and secondary-school curriculums everywhere. And librarians — alongside encouraging and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders — can be at the forefront of this charge.
In some ways, it’s hard to imagine a more important calling right now. I’ll end with a statistic that’s both depressing and a needed call to action. A recent study by the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University looked at 7,000 college, middle and high school student answers to questions about online information. The study’s conclusion: “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” Fewer than 20% of middle school students were even able to distinguish between “sponsored content” and a real news story — let alone assess underlying bias.
In the 1800s, the public library was considered a vital force for strengthening democracy. Today, librarians are poised to play no less critical a role — helping tomorrow’s leaders navigate an ever swelling sea of information, discerning the hard truth from convincing lies. This is a vocation worth celebrating and fighting for.
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