John Palfrey, Head of School, Phillips Academy, and author
Mary Robb, Teacher, Media Literacy and Democracy, Andover High School
Adam Schrader, Former Facebook editor and news fact checker
Damaso Reyes, Program Coordinator, The News Literacy Project
Melissa Zimdars, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication at Merrimack College
Catherine Tousignant, English Instructor, Phillips Academy
Alison Head, PhD, Project Information Literacy
John Wihbey, Assistant Professor of Journalism and New Media at Northeastern University
Claire Wardle, First Draft News
Ben Sobel, Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University
Right away, many of the panelists took issue with the term “post-truth”:
- Not post-truth but post-accountability; the responsibility is on all of us to call out inaccuracies. It is important to teach students the skills to tell fact from fiction. (Mary Robb)
- “Post-truth” is a useful way to think about how information and politics are converging. Immediacy sacrifices deep digging. When people only read headlines, what kind of information are they taking from that and what does that mean? Variety of the internet includes misinformation and disinformation (and “bullshit”). (Melissa Zimdars)
- “There is a world of truth and a world of facts and it doesn’t go away. But there’s also a world of words that occupies its own space…the words have their own power.” Who has authority? Whose authorship is valuable and meaningful? Perspective does matter. Words have power even if they’re untrue. (Catherine Tousignant)
- Students look for consensus, not answers/truth….Untruth works well when it confirms how you feel. (Alison Head)
They also discussed “fake news” and its synonyms:
- There is a difference between untruth and bias. (Adam Schrader)
- “Fake news” is a new term for an old thing – PROPAGANDA. It is important to call these things by their actual names. (Damaso Reyes)
- A lot of the fake news propagated during the election were fueled by economic motives, not political ones (clicks = money). Antidotes/possible correctives are complicated. (John Wihbey)
- “I don’t want to take us down the rabbit hole of darkness, but…we have to think about this” ability to create and disseminate. Trust shifts. Trust bubbles/filter bubbles increase peer-to-peer influence in the absence of gatekeepers. (Claire Wardle)
- The best way to combat fake news is to understand how it is created and disseminated. (Adam Schrader)
Information literacy, media literacy, news literacy:
- “Information is coming towards [students], they don’t have to seek it out….Reach has become a proxy for authority. There are more sources of information” being seen as valid. (Damaso Reyes)
- There has been a slippage in authority – we’ve moved from scarcity to abundance [of information], moving target. (Alison Head)
- Confirmation bias is a bipartisan challenge (Damaso Reyes)
- “We’re surrounded by editorial speech” (e.g. Google search autocomplete). “[People think] the way we obtain our news…are neutral conduits for information, when in fact they are not.” What does it mean to hold Google and Facebook accountable? (Ben Sobel)
What can librarians do?
- Librarians are the “intellectual beating heart of our institutions.” (John Palfrey)
- Different types of libraries can take different actions. Read Pew reports, PIL reports, etc. Libraries are a trusted institution. (Whereas newspapers are less so now.) Librarians are good at ferreting out what exists and good at making partnerships. Librarians are in the right position to make an impact. (Alison Head)
- Academic libraries trying to prepare students to be successful may be using the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, though this framework mentions quality but not truth. Evaluation is the one skill students tend to take and build on. What kind of tools [for evaluation of information] already exist? What partnerships are formed around those tools? Twitter Trails is one example of a tool to determine where information came from and how it spread. (Alison Head)
- Public libraries are going through a shift not unlike the shift newspapers and media have gone through….It’s not about directing a student to a book…it’s about teaching them how to find information. The best thing librarians can do is give students/patrons the tools to find, sort, prioritize information. “It’s about having the tools to interrogate the information that you find.” (Damaso Reyes)
- Teach students to look for WAIL in news stories: Word choice, Adjectives/adverbs, facts Included, Left out. Sometimes you don’t know what’s left out until you consult another source. Students used to come to school for information, now they have information but don’t know its quality. Teach critical analysis. (Mary Robb)
- Have programs with journalists. What libraries could do is bring in different journalists who covered the same event and have them “unpack” how they covered that story: what goes into news creation, how stories can be reported in two different ways. (Damaso Reyes)
- Students love to talk to journalists. It’s a great way to get students to understand how news is created. (Melissa Zimdars)
- Improve (or help explain) the presentation of information, e.g. from government websites. Improve library websites – they could be much more user-friendly. (John Wihbey)
Question for the journalists on the panel: What process do you use for fact-checking?
Panel response: It depends on the type of fact. For a quote, try to find video or audio recording of the person saying it (video is better, so you can carefully examine whether the sound and the lips moving sync up – both audio and video can be faked). For a statistic, go to the organization that issued it. Obtain multiple, credible sources. Cross-verify independently. Use government sources (but be skeptical about these too). Sometimes it’s better to “wait for the debris to clear,” then accurately report the truth. For verification of unofficial sources (e.g. social media content), try to determine the providence, source, state, location.
Question/comment: How to evaluate validity and quality is a complicated problem. Librarians are best-trained to deal with this problem, even better than journalists (who are often trying to be first to break the news). Provide evidence of incorrect information/lies. As humans we just cannot process all of this information. Tech people can create plug-ins to create alerts for lies, satire. Companies must cut off advertising to fake news purveyors. Schools need to teach media literacy and critical thinking. People should understand the scientific method and apply it to your everyday thinking and decisions. Understand the difference between fact and opinion. Understand who you are – know your biases.
Panel response: Silicon Valley needs to hire a nation of librarians! There are some programs and browser plugins that can help (e.g. Hoaxy). Re: Citizen journalism and breaking news: encourage students to keep off of social media (either viewing or sharing) during breaking news situations.
Question: Those of us who teach information literacy classes traditionally direct our students to government websites….
Panel response: During the government shutdown, many pages were inaccessible. Approach with skepticism. Each president has a different agenda; what have they said on a topic? Look elsewhere for information. Figure out which information source is most appropriate for each task. There are more ways to get information, there are ways to evaluate it. Someone introduced an idea about different versions (algorithms) of Facebook, as alternate versions of their usual (secret) algorithm; users could choose the MIT version, LOC version, etc.
All that discussion and Q&A filled an hour and a half and gave participants plenty to think about. In my next post, I’ll write about the afternoon discussion session on “fact, truth, and trust,” where we came up with ideas to use in academic and public libraries.