Who can you trust the most in an age of fake news?

In the global crisis of fake news, who are you going to trust? Who else but librarians, says Heidi Julien, Professor of Information Science at the University at Buffalo in the United States.

Don’t just take her word for it, though. In a public lecture at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, Julien pointed to Pew Research Center analysis that showed 78 percent of Americans felt public libraries helped them find information that was trustworthy and reliable and 76 percent said libraries helped them learn new things. Also, 56 percent believed libraries helped them get information that aided with decisions they had to make.

“We are the experts. And I think we need to assert that expertise,” Julien told an audience of librarians and other information professionals at the University’s Wellington School of Business and Government.

She was a guest of the Information Studies programme in the School of Information Management, which equips professionals to store, organise, retrieve and disseminate information in business, government, library and academic organisations.

Fake news, misinformation, propaganda, alternative facts, clickbait, anti-intellectualism, a refusal to recognise expertise, declining trust in mainstream media—together these represent a crisis, said Julien.

“We have a crisis for democracy, which depends on the flow of information. We have a crisis for good governance, which is very difficult in an era when people don’t trust the information that comes to them. It’s a crisis for health and wellbeing because for many people in the western world most health information comes now online … and we cannot evaluate and ascertain the validity of what you’re reading online. That’s potentially very dangerous for health,” she said.

“We have this ongoing enduring myth about digital natives that is really problematic because we know people do not develop appropriate levels of digital literacy or even the ability to evaluate information just by being computer literate. Spending 10 or 20 years playing around on the internet does not develop digital literacy skills.”

The crisis is also an issue for academia, said Julien. And for the workplace. “Because there is not a workplace around that doesn’t depend on decision-making informed by good information.”

She said information professionals can help in many ways.

They shouldn’t be afraid to express publicly views based on evidence and knowledge – i.e. on information.

“We in fact are the experts. We need to stand up with that expertise and shout from the mountaintop. Make sure you speak to your government representatives about these issues and about the roles we can play as information professionals in addressing them. We need to advocate for digital literacy and we need to teach digital literacy.”

Julien defined digital literacy as the set of skills, knowledge and attitudes required to access digital information effectively, efficiently and ethically; knowing how to interpret and evaluate information; and knowing how to use information to make meaning across a range of contexts – in decision-making, creative activities, academic pursuits, daily life and the workplace.

Drawing on the book Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Era by Professor Nicole A Cooke from the University of Illinois in the US, Julien highlighted such things as triangulating information sources; checking your own biases and reading outside your bubble; knowing the difference between satire, propaganda, infotainment, opinion and dog-whistling; using fact-check sites; checking sources; and asking, “What is the angle?”

Outlining the challenges (“this is where it gets depressing, actually”), she presented six packed PowerPoint pages of obstacles.

These included that people greatly overestimate their digital literacy skills; people act on the principles of convenience and efficiency rather than more time-consuming and careful information searching; because of confirmation bias people embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject contradictory information (in fact they experience a pleasurable dopamine rush when processing information supporting their beliefs); people trust news on the basis of who has shared it with them rather than its source; a significant driver of decision-making is social conformity, so that if your neighbours are doing something you are more inclined to do the same; and while public libraries usually offer access to computers that is not the same as teaching digital literacy.

“Sometimes we look to schools to help with these issues, to develop this skillset in young people,” said Julien. “And I would say: grand idea, except we also know that many schoolteachers actually are not particularly digitally literate unfortunately.”

So, she said, “we need to prepare information professionals to teach digital literacy. We have a historical role in teaching that skillset. And we have expert preparation. We understand how information is structured. We understand how to search expertly. How to manipulate information for use and how to do it all efficiently, practically and ethically.”

Meanwhile, there are websites such as NewsGuard, Media Bias/Fact Check and Truth or Fiction? to direct people to.

There are infographics such as the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ How to Spot Fake News and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Five Laws of Media and Information Literacy.

If nothing else, a librarian might prominently display writer Aldous Huxley’s quote: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

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