by Paul Gatz
The news is fake, truth is dead, and facts aren’t even a “thing” anymore. A blunt initial assessment, but perhaps it can be fine-tuned. Yes, it can be difficult to distinguish between news items from reputable sources and those from less-than-reputable sources. And surely the correspondence of a given proposition to an actual state of affairs is far less persuasive than a rhetorical appeal to emotions, biases, and prejudices. Finally, those in power have often found denying the existence of objective reality to be a useful tool for delegitimizing their opponents’ criticism. In many ways, none of this is new.
What is new is that the institutions traditionally responsible for conveying reliable, authoritative, and accurate information – journalists, publishers, and librarians – no longer play the same dominant role that they once did. In ways undoubtedly familiar to the readers of this blog, the explosion of Web technology, and social media in particular, has flattened and broadened the information ecosystem on which public discourse relies. Anyone can publish anything, and everyone can read it, share it, or like it. Every man or woman is his or her own media curator – within the bounds of the almighty algorithm of course.
This is not to suggest that certain monolithic social media companies should take on the responsibility of telling their users what is and is not fake news; others can make those arguments more forcefully. Rather, the online bubbles and echo chambers that amplify the signal of fake news stories, misinformation, and propaganda are a human problem, not a technological one, and they likewise require a human solution. Librarians comprise one set of humans that is well situated to play a major role in addressing this problem, particularly through providing information literacy education.
In the past several weeks, many have commented on the fact that an information literacy skills deficit is at the heart of the “fake news” problem. In particular, my former colleague (and editor of this blog), Jamie J. Baker, recently highlighted an interview on The Verge with Professor Nicole A. Cooke of the University of Illinois diagnosing information overload as part of the problem and reviewing the efforts, sadly limited by resource crunches, of school and public librarians to teach information literacy.
Teaching information literacy at all levels, in all libraries, is undoubtedly a key to ensuring that citizens can critically evaluate resources and distinguish between good information and bad. I am likely not alone in reviewing my syllabus and plans for my next semester ALR class to make sure that my students will be afforded opportunities to deepen and further develop their information literacy skills.
However, simply providing instruction to the patrons of our own institutions seems inadequate when the library, as an institution, no longer occupies the central role it once did in the information environment. In an earlier post, I characterized the work of a public services librarian as a nexus between the user and the information system represented by the library. The skills that enable us to provide those sorts of services are transferable to other information systems. And what is the Web, if not a larger, less controlled, more fragmented information system?
Perhaps we need to take information literacy instruction outside the walls of our libraries, to the places where public discourse, for good or ill, occurs: social media. I don’t mean to suggest that we should all turn our social media accounts into full-time fact-checking enterprises, or that you should comment with unsolicited information literacy instruction on every post that’s asking for it (although if this is how you wish to spend your time, by all means, please do).
As Professor Cooke notes in The Verge interview,
For those who are concerned, those in the media, we have to prioritize this as something that’s really important. This is a headline right now given recent events, but will it still be a headline past January?
It is incumbent upon librarians to keep this conversation about information literacy going, and I do not mean “librarians” in a broad sense, as a profession, or even in the context of an individual’s career. I mean individually, within the context of our own personal social networks. One of the consequences of the flattening of the information ecosystem is that we are all part of “the media” now; we should be concerned and we should speak up.
A good start may be to simply share articles and other content that discuss the importance of information literacy and critically evaluating what you read online before you share it, like it, or retweet it. People in my own networks have posted helpful things, including a list of False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources compiled by Professor Melissa Zimdars (recently profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education); a LibGuide on Fake News from the Campus Library at Indiana University East; and a slightly-too-clever article from the Huffington Post with the completely serious headline, Bernie Sanders Could Replace President Trump With Little-Known Loophole.
But it’s important to do more than share or retweet existing content. You should share your own thoughts on this subject. The great value of social media is that it provides a platform for all users to express themselves, and your own voice will make a greater impact on the people in your network than anything you merely endorse, quote, or otherwise react to. So share your own thoughts and words on what information literacy is, how to practice it, and why it’s important. Get the friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances in your social network to start thinking and talking about it, and don’t let the conversation stop.