One of the great promises of the internet was that it would be a conduit for truth; repressive governments would be hard put to stop the flow of news from reaching their citizens. What we’ve gotten instead is a deluge of fake and grossly biased “news” sources that have made it a lot more difficult for us to tell what’s real.
Worse, thanks to our bitter partisan divide, a lot of the time we have no idea how badly we’re being duped.
The Wall Street Journal did a piece a while back comparing “liberal” Facebook to “conservative” Facebook. It’s eye-opening just how wide the gap is, and how different the “news” sources are. Looking from one side to the other is like peering into a fun-house mirror. It’s also enlightening — conservative Facebook seems much worse and much crueler than liberal Facebook, though I know conservatives would claim the opposite. Conservative Facebook seems to do nothing but stoke the fury of vicious racially tinged grievances that led Donald Trump to the White House.
The problem of fake news makes this much worse. Facebook in particular has a fake news problem — Buzzfeed found that fake news on the site outperformed actual news in the weeks before the election in terms of shares, comments, and reactions.
It’s not just that the fake news sites peddling outrage that are the problem, but also the hundreds of content recyclers that take fairly innocuous things and rebrand them under click-bait headlines.
And yet, Facebook isn’t entirely the problem. The site is geared toward showing us what we want to see. We like finding “news” that we agree with, or that we can use to make ourselves feel better or superior. So we consume that and sources like it, share them with our like-minded friends, bash the “mainstream” press for missing the story, and end up pushed farther and farther away from the other side. It’s a nasty little cycle.
It’s part of how we got to the miserable point where we elected an internet troll from the cruelest fringe of conservative social media as our president. Trump peddles conspiracy theories, easily-disprovable “facts” about climate change and the world, and stokes anger and outrage. He lies constantly, and never apologizes. He presents bluster as truth, and his fans swallow it whole.
This is our world. There is a blizzard of information swirling all around us. How do we tell what is real and what is fake?
That’s where libraries come in. Libraries are more than just repositories of books and links to websites, and librarians are more than just the curators of a collection. A library cannot be replaced by a smartphone, and a librarian can’t be replaced by Siri.
Librarians are information experts who dedicate their careers to helping people find, evaluate, and use information well. I know, I’ve worked most of my adult life in academic libraries, and the number one thing I do is teach information literacy to students.
Information literacy is the set of skills that enable people to find, evaluate, and use information in a thoughtful and ethical manner. These are the skills that help people figure out what they want to find, how to find it, and to figure out whether that information is accurate.
So here’s my librarian’s advice to everyone: do more than find sources you agree with. Find multiple sources from multiple points of view. Question everything, even the sources you like and approve of. Look for bias. Compare articles on the same topic to one another. Figure out who the author is, and what their purpose in writing the article is. Use fact-checking sites like Snopes.com and FactCheck.org.
Don’t believe anything until you’re sure it’s real. And even then, be skeptical. If you’re in doubt, a librarian can help you find more reliable resources that help you answer your question.
Being an information literate person is more essential than ever in today’s world, and librarians are leading the way. But libraries can’t do this without funding. Thanks to yet another huge budget deficit, the state is looking at yet more budget cuts for public libraries, which are already reeling from last year’s deep cuts. The state interlibrary loan system is in deep trouble, the ConnectiCard system that lets us borrow from other libraries is endangered, and your local library may have to cut hours and staff if things keep going the way they are.
Take a stand against fake and misleading news and false information. Tell your legislators to protect libraries and librarians. It’s one of the best things we can do to preserve our democracy.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.