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Magazines > Information Today > May 2017

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Information Today
Vol. 31 No. 4 — May 2017
WE THE PEOPLE
What’s Behind Fake News and What You Can Do About It
by Kathy Dempsey

I implore you to dig into this problem and get your hands dirty.
From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I grew up to do just that. I got my journalism degree 30 years ago, when the industry was still old school. Since then, I’ve worked as a writer, copy editor, proofreader, and editor-in-chief. I’ve written for international serials, and I even published a book. While my work has always been in trade or business publications, rather than in the mainstream media, I still know a thing or two about how good journalism works—or how it used to work.

For the past 6 months, I’ve watched with great interest, and great despair, as the concept of fake news has become a major point of discussion around the world. Of course, too many people don’t understand what fake news really is (intentionally misleading articles, often published for profit or other gain) and what it is not (any news that you don’t agree with). Many people are asking, “How did we get here?”

How This Happened

The following is a brief chronological list of factors that brought us to this point:

  • There was a switch from the limited hours of network television (remember when your set went to static at midnight?) to 24-hour cable TV. To fill all of those time slots, journalists and others had to repurpose content and maybe run stories that wouldn’t have made the cut before. The overwhelming amount of new competition also led to the writing of clickbait headlines to drive readers to websites.
  • As the internet grew more ubiquitous and as simple blogging platforms replaced the need for deep HTML knowledge, anyone with access and a little know-how could become a “publisher.”
  • Social media sharing has driven the desire to see new news not each day, but each hour, if not more often. And the rush to be the first to share something among one’s peers can lead people to share a news item after seeing only a headline and photo (which are often sensationalized for this purpose).
  • While most people have entered the wide world of online information, few really understand it. People who are not information professionals, web developers, or IT experts usually don’t know exactly how the sausage is made.

The general public doesn’t really have the following behind-the-scenes knowledge:

  • People can make lots of money via online ads if they drive large numbers of users to their websites. So they may not care what the content even says or how misleading the headline is, as long as it’s attracting eyeballs to their paid-per-click pages.
  • The public may not know, or believe, that they’re being duped by unscrupulous foreigners who create or steal articles to populate websites to make money. (Although the teenagers in Macedonia did get lots of coverage: bbc.com/news/magazine-38168281, wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news, etc.)
  • Non-techies probably also don’t know about bots that are programmed to share information in service of an agenda, especially on Twitter (youtube.com/watch?v=HMD4vXptxkI). Ditto for not realizing how much of their newsfeeds, especially Facebook’s, are controlled by what they’ve already clicked on or read (graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed).
  • If you don’t understand the technology that’s misleading you, you’re apt to believe it’s not real. And while people may have finally caught on to catfishing (people who pretend to be others online to break your heart or take your money), they may not have heard of sock puppets (people who assume false identities to affect beliefs online).
  • People who lack basic digital literacy and information literacy skills cannot (or don’t try to) determine whether a website is legitimate or a look-alike (www.ag.state.mn.us/Consumer/Publications/BewareOfLookALikeWebsites.asp). If they can’t do that, then they almost certainly aren’t checking real sites to see who runs them or what their stated agendas are.

Where to Go From Here

And so, here we are. It’s 2017, and folks are screaming, “Fake news!” at anything they don’t like or don’t understand. Where do we go from here? I strongly believe that librarians have a role to play.

Librarians are all about information education—how to find it, how to verify it, how to use it, and how to cite it. So why are you not already at the forefront of this movement? Why aren’t more of you creating portals of information, sharing fact-checking advice on social media, promoting your text- or chat-reference services for quick answers, and creating programs with names such as How to Find the Truth? Studies have proven that people see librarians as trustworthy, and they respect libraries in general. Why not use some of this clout to step up and start teaching how to separate fact from fiction?

It sounds risky, I know. People might get upset. But you don’t have to use political examples. There’s fake news out there about plenty of topics (scroll through Fact Check.org for ideas), and some of your peers have successfully published articles (tennessean.com/story/opinion/2017/01/10/librarians-greatest-weapons-against-fake-news/96206964) and already held programs (chicagotribune.com/suburbs/arlington-heights/news/ct-ahp-arlington-library-fake-news-tl-0202-20170126-story.html).

So I urge you to be responsible. I challenge you to be brave. I implore you to dig into this problem and get your hands dirty. Guide your communities back toward reality. Because as politicians and stakeholders are seriously doubting the usefulness of libraries in the internet age, they’re tempted to cut your budgets. It’s vital to prove your continued value, and this is a timely, powerful way to do it. It’s one thing to repeat the old trope, “People need libraries now more than ever,” and it’s another thing to get out there and prove it.


Kathy Dempsey founded her own marketing consultancy (librariesareessential.com) to help librarians and information professionals promote their value and expertise in order to gain respect and funding. She has been the editor of the Marketing Library Services newsletter for 23 years and was formerly editor-in-chief of Computers in Libraries magazine. She’s an active member of the New Jersey Library Association and chairwoman of the Library Marketing and Communications Conference (librarymarketingconference.org). And as a lifelong journalist, she’s furious at people blaming the media for fake news. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.