Fake news and the librarian's duty of care

Introducing The USA Desk - a new column by Terence K. Huwe reporting on stateside developments of interest to librarians everywhere.

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Fake news calls for an antidote

The digital era accelerates the pace of everything and politics are no exception. Indeed, American political discourse runs at such a fast clip that effective fact-checking has been a challenge for years. But 2016 seemed like a political game-changer, as "fake news" – the rapid dissemination of questionable media stories - took flight not just in the US but in many nations around the globe. Unsurprisingly, the backlash against fake news has been immediate and boisterous. As information professionals we find ourselves in the middle of the action and in command of all the tools to neutralise fake news—but to do so, we need a new plan.

Fake news calls for an antidote: reliable and trusted information, also rapidly disseminated. This is a daunting challenge, but we owe a duty of care to our users to provide the best antidote we can create. Fortunately, our success stories offer some guidance.  The Congressional Research Service provides all members of Congress with rock-solid information that might buttress both sides of opposing political arguments. CRS is indispensable for Congress, and it is one of the most trusted players in Washington politics.

Basic research data is also at risk whenever fake news influences policy. Data | Refuge is a grass-roots project undertaken by several elite universities, libraries and scientific societies. They have joined forces to gather and preserve climate change data to ensure it remains discoverable in the future. 

These are noble efforts, but in the "Dodge City" climate of fake news anything goes, and bold action is called for.  Essentially, the profession faces a new opportunity to redeploy our proven skills where they are needed most: in the hurly burly of political discourse at large.

An effective response

There are two key steps to take in crafting an effective response to fake news. First, we must identify the beliefs and institutions that are being assailed. The second is to create a matrix of proven strategies as well as new ways to use social media.

Let's start with beliefs. Clinical studies show that ceaseless repetition of statements can sway our thinking, as the ubiquitous "cascade of information" across all media drowns out the voices of even our most trusted institutions. The same dynamic applied during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. Having a reputation for being "reality-based" – focusing on the known facts—was a political liability for many moderate politicians, affecting how they voted. Nowadays the sheer momentum of fake news brushes aside the solid critiques of The New York Times's Op-Ed section.

Likewise, key online "social institutions" also struggle with fake news. Both Facebook and Google find that their lucrative business models and algorithms have actually raised the decibel level of fake news. Since 2016 Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has made a series of statements on the issue, citing the low relevance of fake news in social networks but ultimately conceding that the problem is real. Facebook now employs human fact-checkers to scout out fake news threads. Google's AdSense software turns "clicks" into micro-payments—but it also accelerates fake news as new players try to make money. In response, Google has pledged to restrict ad-serving on web pages that clearly misrepresent the facts. However this is harder than ever, with fake news sites employing quality web design and sophisticated social media skills.

Our second step is to discover what effective strategies neutralise fake news. It helps to start with a search for like-minded partners. Data|Refuge is an instructive candidate: the Universities of Michigan, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania joined forces with the Union of Concerned Scientists to preserve climate data for future researchers.

App developers are also hard at work. On March 3, 2017, The New York Times published an article describing numerous apps that pull us out of our media "echo-chambers" to hear the full spectrum of opinion. Two standouts are Escape Your Bubble, which crawls Facebook for extremist news, and Right Richter, an aggregator of right-wing media for left-wing readers.

These apps point to the real solution to the dilemma of fake news: an informed and engaged populace. Writing in Online Searcher, Barbara Quint laments the decline in the influence of professional news and the rise of "citizen news" – the rhetorical free-for-all that is changing how we view the internet. But she also cites the Pew Research Center's findings that Americans share a growing concern about fake news.

As information professionals our core values challenge us to cross organisational and ideological boundaries in search of trustworthy knowledge resources. The chaos currently consuming American politics is a new challenge, but it is one for which we are prepared. Our new remit is to offer targeted fact checking across all media--and to make sure our voices are heard.

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REFERENCES

Congressional Research Service:  https://www.loc.gov/crsinfo/

Data |Refuge: http://www.ppehlab.org/

FURTHER READING

Head, Alison and Wihbey, John. “The Importance of Truth Workers in an Era of Factual Recession.” https://medium.com/@ajhead1/the-importance-of-truth-workers-in-an-era-of-factual-recession-7487fda8eb3b

Hess, Amanda, “How to Escape Your Personal Political Bubble for a Clearer View.”  The New York Times, March 3, 2017.

Johnson, Ben. “Information Literacy is Dead: The Role of Libraries in a Post-Truth World. Computers in Libraries 37(2), March/April 2017, p. 12.

“Many American Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion.” Pew Research Center Journalism & Media, http://www.journalism.org/2016/12/15/many-americans-believe-fake-news-is-sowing-confusion/

Quint, Barbara. “Honesty in the Digiverse.”  Online Searcher 41(2), March/April 2017,  p. 25.