V32#4 Collecting to the Core — Media Literacy in the Post-Truth World

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by Stephanie Alexander  (Social Sciences and Assessment Librarian, California State University, East Bay; Communication Subject Editor, Resources for College Libraries: Career Resources

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL) 

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

“Post-truth” was named the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016 and, since then, renewed interest in “fake news” has generated countless articles and books on the subject.1  Fake news — information that is shared with an intent to deceive — is nothing new in America, but with today’s information technologies it can travel faster and farther than ever before.2  The ability of fake news to disseminate rapidly with real-life repercussions was clear during President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, exemplified by the conspiracy theory-based “Pizzagate” controversy about a (fictional) pedophile ring at Washington D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant.3  At the time of writing, fake news is spreading misinformation about remedies for the novel coronavirus during a worldwide pandemic — encouraging people to drink bleach or eat fish tank chemicals to prevent infection, causing severe illness or even death.4  Whether it is gun-toting vigilantes showing up to family-friendly pizza restaurants, the ingestion of dangerous chemicals to fend off the coronavirus, or coordinated disruptions to democracy sowed by disinformation campaigns, “fake news” can have very real, alarming consequences in people’s lives and across society. 

So what can be done in our new, post-truth world to fight the scourge of fake news and rampant misinformation?  In the “Science of Fake News,” Lazer et al. examine the historical and technological contexts for the rise of fake news and identify two potential avenues for reducing its impact:  putting pressure on Internet platforms to take a more active role in reducing user access to fake news sources and improving the ability of individuals to identify unreliable and questionable news sources.5  Information professionals can play an important role in combatting misinformation through instructional outreach, programming, and materials.  The below titles add value to any library’s collection and help inform user communities about the current media environment, contextualize America’s history with fake news, and provide practical tools for becoming more information- and news-literate, including increasing the public’s scientific competency.

Why is fake news such a pressing issue at this current time in history?  Media scholar Brian McNair writes that the present “crisis in trust” towards both media and politicians has created a fertile ground for the proliferation of fake news sources.6  His book, Fake News: Falsehood, Fabrication and Fantasy in Journalism, is an examination of why fake news is in the zeitgeist now.  Defining fake news as “intentional disinformation (invention or falsification of known facts) for political and/or commercial purposes, presented as real news,” McNair identifies five factors that influenced its recent growth:  philosophy and epistemology, culture, economy, technology, and politics.7  Specifically, a cultural decline in trust in experts, an economy where even traditional media outlets need to lure more clicks to their news coverage, and technology that allows information to spread to a large audience quickly and cheaply has created a potent environment for misinformation.  McNair’s recommendations for reducing fake news include regulatory action, pressure on media organizations (including distribution platforms like Google and Facebook), and educating the populace with the skills to fact-check the information they encounter.

Critical to understanding how to confront contemporary issues with fake news is to understand its history in the United States. Cortada and Aspray, historians of information and information technologies, study the spread of false information in politics, business, and science through specific examples from American history in Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misinterpretations in America.8  The authors selected case studies that represent the history of lies in our society, including misinformation surrounding presidential elections, presidential assassination conspiracy theories, wartime communication, advertising mistruths, and disputations of the science around tobacco smoking and climate change.  Across all of the examined cases, the information was “weaponized” to achieve specific objectives and the case studies illustrate how the actors prominently involved in misinformation campaigns have shifted over time from individuals to organizations.  Cortada and Aspray recognize the importance of librarians’ efforts to educate user communities in identifying fake news, stating “ultimately, the value of exploring the history of fake facts turns on the notion of information literacy,” and they call on individuals to become metaliterate and “think broadly and contextually about what they are reading.”9-10  No matter the technological or social context, humans will lie, and it is up to the individual to acquire the skills necessary to identify what to believe.

Librarians have long worked to help users access credible information and develop information literacy skills.  In the context of a post-truth world where most users receive a large volume of unfiltered information from the Internet, strengthening information literacy competencies in the context of fake news becomes even more important.  Nicole Cooke’s Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Era speaks directly to librarians working in the field.11  While brief, this work covers the current state of fake news, the cognitive and emotional elements of information behavior, and how learners who engage critical thinking and metaliteracy skills can “successfully navigate the information landscape that is riddled with alternative facts, biases, spin, and counter knowledge.”12  Written by a librarian, this title is especially effective at translating the work librarians have already been doing with information literacy and clearly communicating how they can extend their work to support communities in identifying what is and is not fake news.

Luhtala and Whiting’s News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News covers similar territory to Cooke’s work, but provides expansive access to lessons, examples, and rubrics for instructors teaching news literacy to students.13  The authors emphasize that the rise of digital media has lowered the barrier for information producers sharing content with the masses, which increases the importance of teaching students to be good digital citizens who are critical readers.  It includes over 25 lessons that support the development of research questions, identification of bias, recognition of persuasion, and strategies for close reading.  Librarians and faculty who use this book will have the resources needed to jump start instruction dedicated to developing students’ news literacy skills.

Designed as a tool to support educators teaching students to become more news literate, Janke and Cooper’s News Literacy: Helping Students and Teachers Decode Fake News identifies the hurdles presented by fake news, including difficulty finding accurate information, evaluating information capably once it is found, avoiding biases when interacting with information, and a willingness to accept information that may be in conflict with previously held beliefs.14  The book employs a checklist approach and each checklist is accompanied by examples that add context, along with explanations of why the checklist items are important and discussion questions for classroom use.  Sample sizes, methodologies, misrepresentation of data, and the deceptive strategies used by fake news publishers get dedicated chapters, and the book closes with a discussion of the importance of “civilytics,” which the authors describe as a combination of media literacy, data literacy, and critical thinking skills.

While not everyone is a scientist, everyone can learn scientific “habits of mind” and apply those habits to skillfully evaluate numeric and scientific information.  Astrophysicist David J. Helfand developed his ideas about scientific habits of inquiry as part of a course designed for Columbia University’s undergraduate students.  Helfand notes that “one thing all true scientists have in common is curiosity” and that a “scientist’s best quality” is skepticism.15-17  The scientific competencies he outlines provide a structure for readers to evaluate information and claims via the ability to do “back of the envelope calculations”;  understand graphical (mis)representations of data, the rules of probability, and how correlation does not equal causation; and recognize what science is (data, models, theories, and more) and what it isn’t (pseudoscience).  These habits of mind will help readers become more critical information consumers, whether the source originates in the news media, social media, or otherwise. 

“Fake news” has long been a part of American society, but the current social, political, and technological environment makes it particularly prevalent and challenging to combat.  Through collection services, libraries can provide information that helps users understand the contemporary and historical context and resources that empower instructors to teach the critical media literacy skills needed to recognize misinformation.  As seen with the “infodemic” spreading misinformation and fake cures for the coronavirus on Facebook and other social media platforms, teaching users the skills needed to separate fact from fiction impacts Americans’ well-being, and may potentially even save their lives.18  

Endnotes

1.  Oxford Dictionaries. Word of the Year 2016. Accessed May 7, 2020. https://languages.oup.com/word-of-the-year/2016/

2.  Janke, Robert W., and Bruce S. Cooper. News Literacy: Helping Students and Teachers Decode Fake News. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.*

3.  Lacapria, Kim, “Is Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria Home to a Child Abuse Ring Led by Hillary Clinton?” Snopes, November 21, 2016. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/pizzagate-conspiracy/

4.  Phillips, James, Jordan Selzer, Samantha Noll, and Timur Alptunaer. “Covid-19 Has Closed Stores, but Snake Oil Is Still for Sale.” New York Times, March 31, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/opinion/fake-treatment-cure-coronavirus.html 

5.  Lazer, David M.J., Matthew A. Baum, Yochai Benkler, Adam J. Berinsky, Kelly M. Greenhill, Filippo Menczer, Miriam J. Metzger, et al. “The Science of Fake News.” Science 359, no. 6380 (2018): pp. 1094-1096.

6.  McNair, Brian. Fake News: Falsehood, Fabrication and Fantasy in Journalism. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018, p. 11.*

7.  Ibid, p. 38.

8.  Cortada, James W., and William Aspray. Fake News Nation: The Long History of Lies and Misinterpretations in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

9.  Ibid, p. 211.

10.  Ibid, p. 224.

11.  Cooke, Nicole A. Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Era. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2018. 

12.  Ibid, p. 18.

13.  Luhtala, Michelle, and Jacquelyn Whiting. News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2018.*

14.  Janke.

15.  “Frontiers of Science.” Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/frontiers/

16.  Helfand, D. J. A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 17.*

17.  Ibid, p. 275.

18.  Richtel, Matt, “W.H.O. Fights a Pandemic Besides Coronavirus: An ‘Infodemic.’” New York Times, February 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/health/coronavirus-misinformation-social-media.html

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.

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