Tag Archives: expertise

Information Literacy and Fake News

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Information Literacy and Faculty Outreach, and Scott Dunn, Associate Professor of Communication, at Radford University.

One day in September, a relative emailed me a link and asked, “Should I share this on Facebook?”  I took a look at the linked article, which had an extremely loaded-language headline and made some brutal accusations about one of the presidential candidates.  I didn’t recognize the news source hosting the article, and none of the more mainstream news sites mentioned the story. I visited my go-to fact checkers, like PolitiFact and Snopes, but found nothing about the article topic or the site. I told my relative that I couldn’t verify anything in the story or the site, so I recommended she not share it further through social media.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first real engagement with what came to be called “fake news.”  Since the election, much has been written about this phenomena, with Politifact calling it the 2016 Lie of the Year.  Librarians have pointed out that acceptance of fake news shows a weakness of information literacy skills, and have published suggestions on how libraries can counteract fake news here and here (to name just a few). The Stanford study has added fuel to the discussion, suggesting university students have very weak evaluation skills.

Of course, as just about any instruction librarian will tell you, source evaluation is a complex skill. As Mike Caulfield so eloquently argues in his piece, Yes, Digital Literacy. But Which One?,  an information seeker needs a certain amount of subject expertise to truly judge whether a source on the topic is credible. And in this NSFW article, Chuck Wendig explores some of the problems of convincing people to read an article that goes against their worldview with an open mind.

But as an instruction librarian, I’m not ready to throw in the towel. Our students are going to read fake news, and I think we can encourage them to approach sources critically. As I posted to the ILI-Listserv in September 2016:

We have a solid lesson plan for evaluating Web sites  but I’m looking for one that focuses on news sites.  For example, there were a lot of conflicting reports about what actually happened during Trump’s visit to Flint last week. How could the average person figure out which story to trust?  What can we teach in a one-shot that would help students to evaluate the media?… My ideal lesson plan could be taught to freshmen in a 50-minute workshop, would be very hands-on, and would not leave them thinking, “All media are biased, therefore you can’t trust any of them.”

I discussed my quest with a few colleagues. My conversation with Dr. Scott Dunn, professor of communication, was the one that gave me the most traction. Scott’s research interests include politics and mass media, so he had been watching the fake news about the presidential election with interest. He understood my concerns that common suggestions for evaluating sources often centered on superficial characteristics, such as whether the site looked professional, or used criteria which were not as appropriate for news sites, like the URL’s top-level domain name (.com, .edu, .org). I proposed that readers needed to analyze the content of the stories themselves and look for hallmarks of quality, but I wasn’t sure what those might be, or what would be realistic to expect from your average, non-expert reader.

We first grappled with a definition for “fake news.” While it initially seemed to mean hyperpartisan stories, did it also include intentionally fake ones, like the satirical Onion? What about stories that turned out to be false, such as The Washington Post’s (now corrected) story about Russians hacking into the electric grid?  More recently, people have begun using the phrase “fake news” whenever a story doesn’t fit their world view. As Margaret Sullivan wrote in her piece, It’s time to retire the tainted term fake news, “Faster than you could say ‘Pizzagate,’ the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”

Rather than focus on identifying fake news, then, we decided it made more sense to teach students how to recognize good journalism. This dovetailed well with my initial instinct to focus on the quality of the content. Scott and I, with some help from the Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, developed these tips:

  1. Avoid judgments based solely on the source. Immediately following the election, there were numerous attempts to quantify which sites were trustworthy, such as Melissa Zimdars’ False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources and infographics that attempted to showcase media outlets’ biases. The methodology used to classify sources is often opaque, and it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with all the Websites purporting to be news. Many sites may also have a range of credibility. Buzzfeed has published some strong political pieces, but it also pushes listicles and silly quizzes, making it hard to say it’s always an authoritative source.
  2. Refer to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. While it is written for journalists, many of the principles are ones a reader can identify in a story, such as whether the author seemed to verify facts; took care not to oversimplify or sensationalize a story, even in its headline; and explained why anonymous sources needed to be unnamed.
  3. Differentiate between perspective and bias. Having and writing from a point of view is not the same as cherry picking your facts and twisting a story unfairly. We should be able to read something that doesn’t fit our own world view with an open mind, and not automatically reject it as “biased.” We should also help learners understand the difference between editorials and commentaries, which are intended to be argumentative and express strong opinions, and news stories, which should not. Good news journalism will not mix the two.
  4. Find the original source of the story. Many sites will harvest news stories and then repackage them without any additional research or reporting. Like a game of telephone, the farther away you get from the original report, the more mangled and corrupted the story becomes. Often the original story will be linked, so you can just click to access it.  Encourage students to read this story, rather than relying on the secondary telling.
  5. Check your passion. If a story incites you, it may be too good or too outrageous to be true. For example, the pope did not endorse Trump OR Bernie Sanders. These stories can be created by satirical sites and then picked up by other outlets, which treat them as straight news; or they can emerge from the darker Web, feeding conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. Fact checking is essential for readers of these stories, using all of the above best practices.

Now how could I put all of this into a one-shot? In addition to my online research, I talked through my (somewhat stream of consciousness) thoughts with the other members of the library instruction team, who provided strong feedback and guidance. I collaborated with my colleague, Alyssa Archer, who brought her experience with critical pedagogy to the final lesson plan.  All that was left for us to try teaching it! I’m pleased to share that Alyssa and I taught the class multiple times in the fall, and have shared the resulting lesson plan, Evaluating news sites: Credible or clickbait? on Project CORA. We weren’t able to include all of the tips, but we continue to discuss how to incorporate them in future workshops.

I feel like the “fake news” phenomena is one that just keeps morphing and growing. I could probably write a whole lot more about this but I’m more interested in hearing what you think. How do you think information literacy can counteract the post-fact narratives- if it can at all? What tools and techniques do you recommend?

Analyzing Authority @ the ACRL Conference

On the last morning of my last day at the ACRL Conference I tweeted out a quick observation:

I got a couple of retweets and even started up a Twitter conversation with @nancyeadams, who shared a preprint of an article she’s written that discusses authority (among other topics), which I’m looking forward to reading this summer. But then it was time to head home.

I’ve never done any textmining before, so I tried to dip my toe in the pool by using Storify to pull together tweets that included the word “authority” and the hashtag #acrl2013. But I was tired after the conference and somewhat impatient. I couldn’t get Storify to simultaneously display tweets with the other hashtag (#acrl13) I saw being used occasionally, so I gave up pretty quickly; it also seemed like Storify wasn’t pulling in every single tweet from Twitter. I tried using Zach Coble’s fascinating ACRL Conference social media archive, but I couldn’t manipulate the tweet text all at once. I was also worried that as the conference receded into the past, tweets would become more difficult to find. So I went for the bash-it-with-a-rock strategy: I did a search in Twitter for each of the two hashtags, then I cut and pasted all of the tweets into a text file.

And there the text file sat until Memorial Day weekend, when the semester had ended and I finally had a chance to get back to it. I should stress that this is (still) a fairly basic analysis — I’ve gone through the text of tweets from the beginning of the conference to the end to find all instances of the word “authority” to see whether anything particularly interesting stood out. I’m certain that there are better tools to use for this task, but I’m (still) impatient so I’m plowing ahead with my rocks. (If you’ve used any tools that seem like they’d be useful in this context, please let me know in the comments!)

So, what did I find? I pulled 8,393 tweets (including retweets) with the hashtags #acrl2013 and #acrl13 dating from April 3 through April 16 at around 10:30pm. There were 60 occurrences of the word “authority” in the tweets I pulled.

Some of the patterns are easy enough to see and explain. First thing Thursday morning was the panel session “Questioning Authority: Standard Three and the Critical Classroom” with Jenna Freedman, Emily Drabinski, and Lia Friedman. This session had its own hashtag — #qacrlauthority — which made the tweets even easier to spot (and which I really appreciated since the wicked weather made me miss the session). There were 41 occurrences of the word “authority” in the tweets and retweets from this session. Laura O’Brien created a Storify of the panel which looks to have captured the session well. As librarians we should examine the authority embedded in controlled vocabularies, sources, and other library systems we use, and consider the ways we can empower students as authorities.

Chronologically, the next mention of authority was a tweet from Alison Head’s invited paper on Project Information Literacy, a multi-year, multi-institution study of college students’ information seeking and use. They have a nifty infographic created from their data on how college students seek information.

I missed that presentation (and haven’t read the paper yet) so I can’t offer any extra context around this tweet. But it’s an interesting comparison to the tweets from the Questioning Authority session, especially this one:

And in comparison to Henry Rollins’ mention of authority in his keynote (there were 5 tweets that referred to the thematic links he drew between Thomas Jefferson and punk rock):

And in comparison to the three tweets from the Feminist Pedagogy panel session on Sunday morning, especially:

Taken together, all of these tweets seem to point to a tension between librarians (and libraries) and our patrons, especially students. We have authority in the information realm, authority conferred by education, by experience, by knowledge. Is there a down side to having that authority? Can looking for ways to enable students and patrons to seize some of that authority enhance their learning? And are there reasons not to share or transfer that authority?

A couple of tweets from the libraries and publishing discussion at THATCamp ACRL hinted at the relationship between authority and prestige, a relationship which seems to be growing increasingly fraught as scholarly communications continue to shift and change.

Finally, three tweets discussed the nature of authority in our own library workplaces. Two were from the session “Think Like A Startup: Creating a Culture of Innovation, Inspiration, and Entrepreneurialism,” including one from my fellow ACRLogger Laura Braunstein:

Another seems to have been from the session “Curb Your Enthusiasm? Essential Guidance for Newbie Academic Librarians,” and pairs well with Laura’s tweet above:

I’ve found it interesting to see the various points of the conference where the topic of authority was discussed and considered. I confess that I’m not a big fan of the word authority. When I teach students about evaluating information I always use the term expertise, and in writing this post it’s been easy to see why: in looking through these tweets I’m struck by the underlying theme of power. Thinking on this more drove me to seek out some definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists this as the first definition of authority:

an individual cited or appealed to as an expert

and this as the second:

power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior

which for me comes uncomfortably close to authoritarian:

1. of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority
2. of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people

This as opposed to the more egalitarian nature of the term expertise, from expert:

having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience

As librarians we aim to increase access to information, to share it, and ultimately to promote expertise among our patrons and students. The words we use when we describe our roles and relationships — both within and outside of the library — matter. When we use the term authority, is it possible to get away from power? And do we want to? After all, power can be used for good as well as for ill. Do we lose anything by shifting our use to expertise instead of authority?

Waiting on Wikipedia

Recently while I was teaching a class the instructor asked me whether I thought that Wikipedia would ever come to be considered a generally trustworthy, credible source. I always talk about Wikipedia in my one-shot instruction sessions, especially with first year students, but this was the first time I’d ever gotten a question along those lines. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In my classes I point out to students that most of us — students, faculty, librarians, everyone — use Wikipedia all the time. My usual strategy for talking about Wikipedia in library instruction is likely similar to many librarians: I show students how to use it for brainstorming and background information, suggest that they mine the references, and point out the View history link to show them how the entry has changed. I end by noting that Wikipedia is a great place to start but that students shouldn’t cite it in their assignments because it’s much too general, just as they wouldn’t cite a general print encyclopedia. Instead, they should use Wikipedia to point them to other resources that are more appropriate for use in college work.

But I do wonder when Wikipedia will cross the line into acceptable-for-use-as-a-cited-source territory. Will it ever? Has it already?

Full disclosure: I cited Wikipedia in a scholarly journal article I wrote last year. I had what I thought were (and still think are) good reasons. I was writing about using games in information literacy instruction, and I used Wikipedia to define several specific genres of videogames. I felt that the Wikipedia definitions for those types of games were more current and accurate than definitions I found in other published sources. In this case the fluidity and impermanence of Wikipedia were assets. Genres and micro-genres can evolve and change quickly, and I think that most Wikipedia entries on popular culture (in which I’d include videogames) are probably written and edited by fans of those topics. There’s an argument to be made that those fans are the subject experts, so it’s the information they’ve put together that I was most confident in citing. While one of the peer reviewers did note the Wikipedia citations, the journal editor and I discussed it and agreed to keep them.

Of course, Wikipedia won’t always be the best source. Right now I’m working on writing up the results of a project and needed to find the construction dates for campus buildings at one of my research sites. After scouring the college’s website with no luck, I stumbled upon the information in Wikipedia only to come up against a dilemma I’m sure our students face all the time: the information seems true, it’s not blatantly, obviously false, but there’s no citation for it. In this case I didn’t feel comfortable citing Wikipedia so I emailed the college archivist for more information, which she quickly and graciously provided. But what do our students do in a situation like this? There won’t always be a readily identifiable person or source to check with for more information.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, Wikipedia seems to be moving into a more mature phase. The rate at which Wikipedia articles are edited is decreasing, as is the rate for adding new articles. What does this slowdown mean for Wikipedia? Is it really “nearing completion,” as the article suggests? And when Wikipedia is finished, will it then become a citable source?