Recent world events have extracted an emotional toll on information professionals. Regardless of your opinion on Brexit, the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, the corruption scandal in South Korea, the Zika virus in Brazil, or the exploits of Kim Jung-un, I think we can all agree that the increase of fake news plays an outsized role in influencing opinion worldwide.
Fake news is getting a lot of attention—and not only from information professionals. Journalists are concerned. Social media companies are concerned. Politicians are concerned. Public companies are concerned. Scholars are concerned. Unconcerned, we must assume, are the creators of fake news, some of whom proclaim their fake news isn’t fake at all.
The word “fake” has very nasty connotations, yet there’s a benign side to it as well. Career advice often suggests you “fake it til you make it.” In other words, pretend you know what you’re doing as you actually study and learn how to do the job. When asked to take on new responsibilities at work, take a risk and say, “Sure, I can do that.” Then figure out how. IFLA’s Stuart Hamilton’s comment in his talk at Internet Librarian International is a variation on this theme: If a library issue isn’t included in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, just pretend that it is.
Fake turns toxic with the deliberate distribution and amplification of misleading, factually incorrect, and explosive “news,” particularly when it is indistinguishable from hate speech. Fake news is evil and deserves our professional attention to debunk it. It is also the proverbial “teachable moment,” since fake news did not arrive this year.
In Scientific American’s Anthropology in Practice, Kristal D’Costa identified three fake news stories, one dating from the 8th century, another from the 1100s, and the third created by Benjamin Franklin (blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/three-historical-examples-of-fake-news). Famous for his fake news was William Randolph Hearst, whose yellow journalism spurred the United States into the Spanish American War. And the tabloids on sale in grocery stores have been rife with fake news for decades.
With so much attention now being paid to fake news and the prospect of living in a “post-truth” world, librarians and other information professionals want to jump into the fray. Librarians are creating guides explaining how to spot fake news. They are including news evaluation in bibliographic instruction and information literacy courses. A few public libraries are offering free New York Times access.
This is admirable, but it’s important to make the distinction between satire and real news. The Onion and The Daily Show legitimately parody and comment on actual news. The other very important distinction concerns the alternative press. Voices from minority communities take a different view than mainstream news, but that doesn’t equate to fake. To be truly news-literate is to distinguish between hoaxes intended to undermine the integrity of a democratic system and alternative viewpoints, between fake news designed to manipulate legal outcomes and satire. As information professionals, it is our obligation to fight fire with facts. It is also our obligation to be sure of our facts.