Journalists and Librarians: Natural Partners in Thwarting Fake News

Fake news has the upper hand, for now. (From Buzzfeed)

For many years I was a librarian who dabbled in journalism. Now I am a journalist with a deep interest in libraries. Both of these selves are outraged and saddened by the proliferation of absolutely fake news online.

The graphic above, from a recent Buzzfeed investigation, tells the tale. During the three months prior to the election fake stories received more traffic on Facebook than legitimate news. They were more scintillating, more shocking, and much more false. They were also heavily slanted, in order to favor the successful and shameful campaign of one Donald Trump.

As Katharine Viner put it in the Guardian last summer, this is more evidence of “the diminishing status of truth.” The lies sent forth on Trump’s behalf were ridiculous; the Pope did not endorse Trump, and Hillary Clinton never said he should run for office. But the truth did not matter in the least.

Librarianship is about guiding people to actionable, accurate information that they can use to improve their lives. Journalism is about the same thing. Journalists and librarians should work together to reaffirm the status of truth. This brief post will explore ways to make this happen, building on what is already happening among thoughtful journalists.

On Friday Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York and longtime media observer, offered 15 excellent suggestions for combating fake news. These are technological fixes that would reward accuracy as well as getting people outside of their social media echo chambers. The nub of Jarvis’s suggestions is to facilitate “sharing more information to help users make better-informed decisions in their conversations: signals of credibility and authority from Facebook to users, from media to Facebook, and from users to Facebook” (bold mine, to be explained later).

Jarvis is collaborating with a venture funder, John Borthwick of Betaworks, who will invest in start-ups that show promise in creating and propagating such signals of authority. Critical appraisal of any information source, no matter where it comes from, is always essential. What Jarvis and Borthwick are proposing would eliminate the most egregious “news” that currently pollutes our ecosystem, leaving a more respectable range of information sources for people to evaluate.

Jarvis and Borthwick have no illusions that all fake news sites will be eliminated, and are not calling for censorship or the creation of blacklists of any kind. Their bet is that the same technologies that now so easily distribute fake news can be improved to prioritize true news instead.

I support Jarvis and Borthwick entirely, and want their efforts to succeed. That said, what they are doing does not directly make the case for why signals of credibility and authority are so important. This is where librarians enter the picture. Librarians in many different types of libraries are engaged in supporting “information literacy,” which is the ability to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of any given piece of information. Librarians explain why it is important to seek out “signals of credibility and authority.”

This entire election season became a months-long demonstration of the national need for better information literacy. Librarians are in a prime position to make the case for the value and benefit of the tools Jarvis and Borthwick are building.

So: Jarvis and Borthwick should go forth and build. Librarians across the nation should use this election as a teachable moment, and inform users of the tools Jarvis and Borthwick are building. Representatives of journalism and librarian associations should talk to each other and compare notes. We have the power to protect and defend the truth together.