Libraries in a Post-Truth World: The Conversation Continues

Back in January, there was a one-day conference called “Libraries in a Post-Truth World,” where panelists, presenters, and participants discussed the problem of “fake news,” the spread of misinformation/disinformation, the nature of truth, and what role librarians can play to help boost information literacy and media literacy. (And more. It was a pretty packed conference. See blog posts one | two | three.)

Another conference this month grew out of that one; the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) Intellectual Freedom / Social Responsibilities Committee planned it, and it was held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA, which is by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever attended a conference.

View of Wachusett from Tower Hill Botanic Garden

View from Tower Hill Botanic Garden

The first speaker was Gail Slater, General Counsel for the Internet Association, based in Washington, DC. She had also spoken at ALA’s Midwinter conference in Boston, where she said she realized that “Librarians are the first responders and guardians of the Constitution” (a nice way to win over your librarian audience right away).

Slater’s topic was “The Right to Be Forgotten: Rulings in the EU, Their Impact on Global Internet Companies and Pending Legislation in the United States.” She spoke about “a wave of public policy challenges” to do with the internet now; one of the key questions is about internet companies’ (“online intermediaries”) responsibilities in terms of content posted by users. At the moment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects them from liability, but this “safe harbor” law may change.

Slater then moved on to speak about the Right to Be Forgotten. In a key case from Spain in May 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that search engines are responsible for the content they point to. People in the EU have the right to be forgotten; they can petition Google to de-index links to content about themselves, as Mario Costeja Gonzalez did in the Spanish case. The information itself still exists, but a search engine won’t bring it up.

Plants in hanging basket

A hanging plant, Tower Hill Botanic Garden

Google handles these requests, weighing the public’s right to know against the individual’s right to privacy. Slater explained that in the EU, they place a higher value on the right to privacy, while in the US, we place a higher value on the right to know and free speech. This is “one of the bigger issues” on the geopolitical scale.

During the Q&A, someone asked a very good question: If a person can claim the Right to Be Forgotten or right of erasure, can a corporation claim it? Slater thought there were two reasons this was unlikely, even in the EU: first, the definition of a “data subject” is an individual citizen, not a corporation; and second, the request itself would become a news event, reminding everyone of the original story that the corporation is trying to erase.

Someone else asked what librarians can do about some of these issues. Slater said librarians can speak out about the importance of speech and the right to know. In the EU, privacy is considered a human right, but free speech is important too. She spoke of these as “competing equities” that require a careful balance.

Reflecting pool with turtle fountains

Turtle fountains in the Winter Garden, Tower Hill Botanic Garden

The second speaker was Shawn McIntosh, Assistant Professor of English and Digital Journalism & Communications at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His topic was “Journalism Today: Learning to Trust the First Rough Draft of History.” Unlike Slater, he read a prepared speech, in the manner of a formal lecture. Rather ironically, he quoted Jay Rosen: “Journalism is a conversation, not a lecture.”

McIntosh spoke about what has and hasn’t changed in journalism. “Fake news” isn’t new, of course – there has always been propaganda, biased and partisan writing, and satire. However, “Willingness to accept the lies or spin them as ‘alternative facts’ or not caring is new.”

McIntosh said that his background in strategic communications (a.k.a. PR, a.k.a. “the dark side”) had been helpful: knowing how and why persuasion works, and how attitudes can be impervious to change even/especially when confronted with facts gives perspective to the news climate today. “Beliefs,” he said, “eat facts for lunch.” Research shows that presenting facts to counter someone’s beliefs does not work to change their minds (a disappointing thing for a roomful of librarians to hear).

Over the past few decades, McIntosh said, there has been a broad shift that is “dangerous to our civic and cultural life,” an erosion of public trust in experts and institutions. Journalists are seen as biased and untrustworthy sources. (Librarians, on the other hand, enjoy a high degree of social trust.)

Tree with fall foliage

A tree with fall foliage, Tower Hill Botanic Garden

What are the obstacles? Journalists are overworked and underpaid, and employees and coverage are being cut back, so there is more use of wire service content and less reporting on local issues. Less advertising leads to more cutbacks in a downward spiral. And the 24-hour news cycle certainly doesn’t help.

What can be done? “Journalism has to get back to its roots and break free from its modern traditions.” Rather than attempting or pretending to be objective, journalists must provide context for their stories. “Narrative and stories are how we make sense of the world….News is socially constructed. Acknowledge that.” Furthermore, because of mass communication and social media, the lecture style of journalism no longer works; it must be a conversation.  Within this conversation, though, “people will seek trusted voices,” and curation (the librarian ears perk up) “will play more of a role than it has so far.”

In this environment, McIntosh said, “Developing higher-order critical thinking skills is crucial….News literacy and information literacy skills are vital.” Librarians, of course, are on board with information literacy and media literacy, but McIntosh also said, “It can’t be all consumption, it must be production too.” People need to look under the hood to get an idea of how things work. Here, he said, is a “natural place for libraries, educations, journalists to meet.” People meeting face to face in libraries and classrooms can lead to “exchanges and dialogues between people of different views, [which] can start to break down polarization.”

Stone bench and plants

After a lunch break and a walk around the beautiful grounds, we reconvened in the conference room for a panel on “Combating Disinformation in Your Library.” I spoke, along with Andrea Fiorillo of the Reading Public Library and Bernadette Rivard of the Bellingham Public Library, about what we have done in our libraries to increase information literacy and media literacy.

Photo of panel from a conference attendee's Twitter account

Bernadette Rivard, Jenny Arch, Andrea Fiorillo

Last December, Bernadette wrote a blog post encouraging library users to “think before you share,” and giving tips on how to evaluate news sources. Andrea ran a “civil civics” series, bringing in speakers such as Melissa Zimdars (who was on the panel at the January conference; she also got online access to newspapers for the library’s patrons. (Most libraries still subscribe to newspapers in print, but because most people read the news online, digital subscriptions are another way the library can help connect people with quality information.) I spoke about my “What Is Fake News?” pamphlet, display, and library blog posts, and went over some tips that I’ll be sharing in a future library blog post.

View of the pergolas from the Secret Garden

View of the pergolas from the Secret Garden

After the panel, we returned to our tables for small group discussion on the following four questions:

  1. What does the term “fake news” mean for librarians and the communities we serve?
  2. What are some creative and traditional approaches for librarians to support First Amendment awareness and education?
  3. What are your library’s barriers and supports to promoting media literacy?
  4. What has your library done and what would you like to do to support media literacy?

Conference organizers will be compiling the replies and sending them out to participants, so I may share those here later. At our table alone, we had a mix of public librarians (children’s and adult) and school librarians; I imagine academic librarians would have had a different set of answers. The hashtag for the conference, #mlafreedom, purposely didn’t include a date, so it may be used for related events in the future.

What does your library do to promote information literacy and media literacy? What role(s) do you think librarians can play in our current information environment? Do you have blog posts or handouts to share?

 

 

 

 

 

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