The importance of librarians and library workers in a culture of fake news and misinformation, is more important than ever.
The world's relationship with knowledge has shifted permanently. What is true and what is fake are now perceived differently, and "fact," is no longer a word of absolutes. For those seeking reputable knowledge with a ‘factual’ basis, they are no longer relying on a single news source, instead referring to multiple websites, newspapers, magazines and opinions and drawing their own conclusions.
The problem is that most people don’t have the time or effort to do a thorough search on the sources of their information - they will simply refer to the ‘facts’ that pop up in their social media newsfeed, or the articles that appear in less-reputable media resources. They may follow ‘thought-leaders’ or ‘commentators’ who may make claims and re-purpose poor or incorrect information, without any regard for the validity or veracity of the content. This results in mass-misinformation, incorrect assumptions being made, and a poor information framework on which people can make decisions.
Fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, be it by traditional news media or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. It is important to note that there is intent behind it – an agenda or propaganda that is deliberate and often inflammatory, which increases its virality – the ability to become ‘Viral’ - through various media, especially social media.
Below is a list of various types of fake news:
A number of serious examples of fake news being mass-distributed through social media virality have forced people to consider the possibility that what they are being told, or what they are reading isn't necessarily true. This type of thinking, of course, doesn't tend to stop with the day-to-day news, and as more people question the validity of what they previously considered to be true, trust becomes more tangible in the ongoing quest for knowledge.
A quick Google search on the War of the Roses, will yield not only numerous timelines and countless lists of notable people killed during various battles, but also opinion pieces and conspiracy theories. Indeed, any historical event of note is now being questioned, not only around the events that took place, but also the motivations of individuals involved. While the internet is a good starting point, libraries now serve as something of a consolidation point for genuine knowledge.
In the past, spreading ‘fake news’ and gaining an audience was much harder, due to the following three factors (Carson, 2017):
- Distribution and cost: Distribution of information at any kind of scale was prohibitively expensive, and required a large logistics operation;
- Audiences and trust: Building a large audience took much longer, was expensive to acquire, and reputation was much more important – publication of fake news would be damaging to one’s reputation and thus have economic consequences;
- Law and regulation: Because it was expensive to distribute information, there were far fewer players. These players abided by media law and could be regulated. Publishing fake news would result in a publisher being sued.
With the advent of the internet and social media, the above barriers diminished. Now publishing (e.g. via wordpress) and distribution (e.g. via social media) costs are approaching zero, reputations are much more expendable and information can be published anonymously, with far more operators operating across international jurisdictions, making it harder to legislate and hold those to account. Fake news is proliferating.
Media and ‘news’ can be created by anyone, anywhere. The internet enables proliferation of poor information, which is often analysed on face value (often just by the news headline), and shared without any consideration of its validity. There is little understanding of the consequences of sharing fake news, and being a part of the problem.
Fake news has been especially brought to light recently through the impact of social media and fake news in the 2016 US Presidential Election (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017).
Recent examples in 2016 of fake news (and their social engagement) include the following fake news headlines:
Not only is ‘truth’ and quality information under attack, the news media is equally under attack. The war between Donald Trump and the media is heating up, as both parties accuse the other of deliberate misinformation and ‘fake news’. Whether you think it's right or wrong, trust in journalists has reduced in recent times, as has trust in politicians.
Either way – the role of the librarian and library worker is not to take sides or rally against one or the other. The role of the librarian and library worker is to help educate customers on how to identify fake news, to question everything, and help them identify where they can access quality information on a topic, without subscribing to hype and mindless of consumption of poor quality information. The librarian and library worker’s role in current events is one of understanding; to use the trust imparted by the public, and combine it with an understanding of relevant occurrences, and the various biases of media outlets and information sources.
The future with Fake News
So what can be done about fake news, and how does this implicate librarians and library workers? The future role of the librarian and library worker is education, but also to invite spirited discussion, balanced with robust research and relevant context. This is crucial to the public – especially younger people (digital natives) who have grown up not knowing any other context other than one that includes social media, blogs and proliferation of information through various online media. They often don’t have the skills to question sources, to question biases, and identify inherent misinformation.
This is where education is critical. Librarians and library workers are on the frontline in the ability to inform all generations (not just digital natives), of what constitutes quality information from reputable sources. In fact, connecting communities and individuals to quality information is a mandate of the 21st century librarian and library worker.
To help identify fake news, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has created the following infographic to help library customers identify fake news from quality news:
Harvard University Library has also created the following graphic to help library customers question the validity of news accessed via social media:
Librarians and library workers are key in the battle of fake news, using education as their weapon of choice. Ensure that your library is running programs that help different demographics understand what fake news, how to identify it, and where to access quality news or information. Programs, activities and events can help, as can social media awareness education using… you guessed it… social media! Raising awareness of the proliferation of fake news can be useful in helping combat it, as can raising awareness on what the implications of sharing fake news are.
The evolution of a librarian's role has moved from one of guardianship of quality information to that of an impartial, trusted member of the community, whose role is now to help educate and empower library customers to identify quality information in a 21st century context. As information continues to increase in exponentially in volume (particularly in an online context), this role will only become more important.
Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Stanford University. Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf
Carson, J. (2017). What is fake news? Its origins and how it grew in 2016. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/fake-news-origins-grew-2016/
Wikipedia. (2017). Fake News. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_news