Concern about the prevalence of fake or sensationally biased news sources has escalated in the days following the presidential election, with many citing it as a factor (some even the primary cause) of Donald Trump’s win.
The central focus of the concern is Facebook, which has grown beyond a social platform and is now a key information distributor from which 44 percent of Americans get their news. Though Mark Zuckerberg stated publicly that the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election was “crazy,” a BuzzFeed News report uncovered that people within his own company consider this response flippant and are busy organizing in secret to dig into the data and make recommendations to senior leadership. This news came out after a Gizmodo report stated that Facebook had already built a system that could weed out fake news but had chosen not to deploy it because of the undesirable optics of the tool going after mostly right-wing “news” sources. Facebook has denied that report, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about what’s going on behind closed doors.
On top of Facebook’s issues, the first Google search result for election results for several hours on Monday was a tiny conspiracy blog that wrongly showed Trump winning the popular vote. Google and Facebook both announced on Monday that they would block fake news sources from using their ad networks (one of the key ways that small to moderately sized websites make money), but the issue of fake news creeping up in search results and news feeds is still an urgent one.
All of this is compounded by the reality that a lot of people don’t know fake news when they see it, sensationalized reports are more likely to go viral on social media than sane ones, and distrust of traditional (and genuinely more reliable) media sources is rising.
To get a better idea of how we can fight misinformation, The Verge talked to Professor Nicole A. Cooke of the University of Illinois. Professor Cooke works in the University’s top-ranked School of Information Sciences, focusing on human information behavior, information literacy, and diversity in librarianship. We discussed why it seems to be getting harder and harder for people to keep track of the truth, what libraries are doing to help them, and what we all need to do going forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What kind of work do you do with information literacy at the University of Illinois?
We essentially teach and train aspiring librarians. The librarians that you see in public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries — they all go through a master’s program. That is primarily the work that I do. Prior to coming to Illinois I was an academic librarian in northern New Jersey and I did information literacy instruction. I used to teach college students and faculty members and members of the community how to be better consumers of information. At the library school I teach future librarians how to give that kind of instruction at their organizations and institutions.
For you, how has the job of training librarians changed over the last few years alongside this growing concern we have about fake news?
I think the main change we have to confront is really just the volume of information. Librarians... we’ve always talked about information literacy. Information literacy is just trying to get people to be savvy consumers of information, and getting them to be able to really interrogate the information that is available to them, to see what is quality, to evaluate sources, et cetera.
It’s part of what we’re calling information overload. We’re just inundated with so much information it becomes just more difficult to parse out where the quality information is. And these fake news sites are increasingly savvy. We used to talk to students about “How does the website look? Does it look like you could have done it on your laptop or does it look like there’s a corporation behind it?” We used to and still do look at the url: “Is it a .net, is it a .org?” But these new sites are so savvy, the interfaces can be really slick, and they can look a lot like what we consider to be reputable sources. There’s is also now a lot of manipulation of the domains. I saw something not too long ago that had “.edu.co.” We say that if it has an “edu” it’s a reputable site but there’s that added manipulation with the “.co.” It becomes trickier to identify these deceitful sites right away unless you’re really paying attention and doing due diligence.
Do we have any rules of thumb for identifying fake news left? Is it too complicated now to lay out these simple tricks?
I don’t know that it’s going to be that much trickier. I just think that people have to take the time to actually do it. If you see something on Facebook or Twitter, a lot of people get caught up with just forwarding information without actually reading the article or examining the site. When you see a very salacious headline or something that’s challenging, sometimes the inclination is to forward it without checking. You have to ask: does this appear in multiple places or did you only see it on Facebook? This misinformation is perpetuated because people aren’t taking the time to evaluate sources before they accept it as truth and / or pass it on to others.
Do you think it’s always an issue of people not knowing the news is fake, or do you think it’s possible that they just don’t care?
I actually think it’s both. There is some credence to the idea that people are not investigating sources because they don’t want to believe [the information] is wrong. And they get caught in an echo chamber — they lean towards and absorb news that agrees with and confirms their own sensibilities. I also think that, as I mentioned, part of it is that the fake news sites are so sophisticated now. It is harder to tell with the same techniques that we used to use. But yes, there are some people who are just purposely skipping over things that they don’t agree with.
There’s also a lot of talk about a growing mistrust of conventional media. Do you think that’s in any way related? Do people get the idea that all media is inaccurate and figure it’s not worth it to investigate facts?
Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of credence to what you say about a general mistrust of the media and you hear a lot of comments about “this source is biased” or “this source is slanted.” Lots of media outlets do have a particular stance and if people don’t agree with them then it’s easy [for them] to say “I don’t trust them and I won’t consult them.”
Part of the problem there is a lack of understanding of the idea of neutrality. People are saying “It’s on the internet...” or “It’s in a newspaper so it has to be true and objective.” But the truth is that there are very few truly neutral spaces. Lots of places have a particular idea about what they believe, and that comes out in the reporting. I think the word “distrust” is overused a little bit in the sense that I think a lot of people say that they “distrust” something not because it’s not trustworthy but because they actually just don’t agree with it.
Has the citizenry of the US actually become less informed in an age of seemingly unlimited information? Or is that just cynicism?
In some of the research that I’ve done, we’ve found that there’s a conflation of being able to navigate the technology and being able to evaluate and interrogate the information. There’s an assumption about millennials and younger people, that because they were raised on these technologies that they know everything. That they know how to get information and use it properly. And that may not be the case.
Even people who seem like they’re really talented with technology — that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to evaluate the information they’re coming across. In that sense, with people just clicking and forwarding headlines, there’s too much speed here. I think we are perhaps less informed, just because of the speed of technology.
As far as addressing the problem, are high schools at all focused on these issues?
Yes and no. There are some amazing school librarians that are doing good work and I know they’re familiar with information literacy and what that means. I don’t know how much opportunity they get to actually do that. School librarians are doing 100 different things in the course of the day, but I’m positive that they’re covering it. Perhaps if given the time they could do a lot more. They have a lot of different class needs and they just might not have the time. I know that they are addressing it, and they do realize the importance of it. The earlier they can get the students to be more news literate and savvy information consumers, the better.
It seems like there are two different types of literacy to talk about here. There’s the academic literacy, which is about looking for the academic sources and peer-reviewed sources that are necessary for your formal education, and then there’s this citizen-training which is more about being savvy about the type of information that you see around you all the time. Is that second type of literacy actually a part of written curricula or do you just have to hope individual librarians consider it important enough to teach?
In my department, in my school, I actually teach a class on library instruction and we’re trying to teach aspiring librarians to value that. It is an information literacy instruction course and that’s what we’re talking about: how do we prepare ourselves to teach and train our students, our patrons, our community members? There are lots of classes in library programs across the country in which we explicitly cover this and explicitly cover this type of teaching and learning and instruction for librarians that will go into various types of libraries.
Certainly it is up to librarians to keep up to date and engage in professional development, but it is very likely that they will have the opportunity, if they so choose, to take an information literacy course while they’re in a graduate program.
How are we doing with high schools? Are people getting better at teaching these things? Are we outdated? I know that when I was in high school not too long ago, I heard the same things that you mentioned before like “trust a .edu” and “don’t trust Wikipedia.” But Wikipedia at this point is probably much more reliable than a lot of the news sources we’re talking about.
I do think that information literacy instruction has changed. Just for example, when I was in high school it was early internet, so we didn’t even have that type of instruction. And during my course of doing this work in a college setting my instruction changed as the technology changed. That’s going to be the same for school librarians. There’s still the type of instruction going on that you described, but it’s just a matter of getting more up to speed with the technology as it changes.
Some of this is going to depend on when the librarian was in school. Things have changed dramatically in just the last five years, never mind the last 10 or 15. More to your point, I think the approach is going to need to be more understanding. People use Wikipedia, and students just need to be made more clear on the editing process. It is possible that there is some misinformation and disinformation because you don’t know who’s editing. Wikipedia requires some fact-checking and digging a little bit deeper. For school librarians the question is how do we get students to go a step further. We have to meet them where they are. We know students use Wikipedia and other sources that were frowned upon at one point — how do we meet them where they are and challenge them and really teach them how to take that a step further?
As education budgets get cut, it seems library resources are always one of the first things to go, and this might be the worst possible time for it.
This has been going on for many years. You see states and regions laying off librarians left and right. And then the ones that are remaining, they have to cover multiple libraries. While they may have just had one library, now they’re responsible for four, and then, as you said, the resources are also being cut. I think it should be a huge priority, but it’s not always up to the district. Money’s tight everywhere. I don’t necessarily have an answer for it, but school librarians are doing more with significantly less, both time and material, than they were before.
It’s unfortunate, and sometimes they probably aren’t able to do everything they want particularly in terms of information literacy because they’re literally trying to keep the doors open.
What about public libraries? What’s being done to help an older generation that might be even more overwhelmed by the internet and by false information?
The public libraries are a slightly different situation in that they don’t run classes in the same way, but on the flip side of that they probably have a lot more access to the community. The best thing they can do is just having good programming and a real focus on seniors because they do have different technology needs. Librarians in a public setting have to be mindful of the different levels and really just introduce information a little bit at a time. Depending on the audience, you might have to have a program where you have basic computer literacy so someone knows how to navigate just turning the computer on and off and getting to the internet. And then you have to level up and ask “How do you find sources online?” And then you have to talk about how to evaluate those sources.
With seniors, it might be about having multiple programs and just having an opportunity to address multiple issues instead of trying to get them from soup to nuts in one hour-long session.
It seems like an issue that might be hard to hit head-on with people. If you’re told, “Oh, you’ve been falling for fake news,” it can come off as “Oh, you’re dumb.”
Yes, it’s defensiveness. Maybe it’s just phrasing: we can ask people to “broaden their horizons,” or something. That sounds cliché, but how do we make it attractive to people, the idea of being able to investigate multiple sides of an issue and know how to fact check? When the debates happened this last election cycle, there was a lot of discussion and what seems to be a little fascination with people saying “Ooh, they fact checked the debates.” Well, yeah. [For] some of us, that’s what we do for a living.
I think some of this is new to people. We have to increase that awareness and say, “Yes, you need to fact check the election, and here’s how you do it.” If people think that it’s relevant to them, they’re less likely to be defensive.
This is all sounding pretty bleak. Are there specific things we can do, or has the internet kind of run away with us?
It is getting harder, just because of the proliferation of information. We have to have more conversations, we have to have more programming, we have to have more classes. 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? We get into these cycles where we realize it’s an issue and that we should address it and we have good conversations, but then it just peters out. We need to have the conversation and actually do it.
There are lots of good initiatives through the American Library Association and other professional organizations such as the Public Library Association. There’s the Association of College and Research Libraries and lots of other organizations of professional librarians. They need to offer more programs, and librarians need to request things when they feel like they need extra training or a refresher or just some more tips on how to teach a class about fake news sites. There’s been lots of great resources popping up in the last couple of weeks that say things like “how to spot fake sites” and tell you how to address them. You know, it’s going to be a development issue on our end. I would hope there’s enough conversation that our patrons and students start actually asking for instruction.
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to the Association of College and Research Libraries as “the Association of College and Resource Libraries.”