The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year for 2016 is “post-truth,” defined as “‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. While not a new term, its use has spiked, largely due to the huge number of false news stories generated during the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
We might think that “post-truth” is a child of the digital age, which allows bizarre narratives to go viral within hours. On the internet, the lack of gatekeeping, which, in traditional news outlets. is normally a part of the editing process, makes it possible for any purveyor of “news” to invent a story and have it become mainstream. But post-truth, in concept, if not in name, has existed as long as people have. The fascinating book Rumor, Fear and the Madness of Crowds (New York: Ballantine, 1959) details accounts of mass hysteria based on falsehoods, from the sacking of a convent in the 1830s based on stories that young women were being imprisoned against their will, to Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the anti-Communist hunt of Joseph McCarthy.
We might wonder why people are so easily duped. Answers could include a lack of critical thinking ability, a generalized distrust of the establishment that makes conspiracies believable, and so on. It’s all too easy, however, for those who consider themselves information-literate to carry a sense of superiority, leading to a disdain of the masses as gullible or stupid. We oversimplify when we assume that giving the common people some information literacy will have us all rejecting viral falsehoods. There are a lot of factors that make this a tough problem to crack.
Why does the digital age make it easier for people to believe falsehoods? There was a time when information was much more rigorously controlled. A news editor would say to an eager young reporter, “You think you’ve found something, kid? Let me tell you—nobody but a fool would believe that story. No, I won’t run it. Go find something I can believe.” And that little piece of investigative reporting would never actually reach the population.
Book and periodical publishers rejected more manuscripts than they accepted—the flaky or peripheral stuff didn’t survive the editorial process. Sure, post-truth was present, but much of it was suppressed so that people never saw it at all. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a recent ad, “No more fake news! We believe tall tales belong in libraries, not news organizations. Turn to us for trusted journalism.”
To make sense of our propensity to believe dubious information, let me suggest the following.
Explanation No. 1: Human beings encounter multitudes of conflicting messages on a daily basis. We cope with this by having a foundation, something we might call a worldview. This is comprised of fundamental beliefs and values that give us stability and that define our personal identity. When our worldview is challenged by new and potentially compelling information, we become anxious and uncertain. Not finding such emotions comfortable, we try, more often than not, to screen out that contradictory information and believe what fits our worldview, even if it is based on unreliable data.
Now, imagine that your worldview is tinged with distrust, with disbelief in the establishment. A message that the establishment has again done something bad confirms your distrust. Life circumstances that hurt you get blamed on the powers that be, who are letting you suffer to achieve their own greedy or power-mad ends. You are now ready to believe that a pizza restaurant is doing terrible things in its basement (until you find out it has no basement). Or that some political candidate or other has done something evil. Or that the Martians have landed.
Explanation No. 2: There are too many voices out there, and the contradictions in them confuse us. The problem is not so much that our worldview filters the voices but that we feel bound to choose something, so we choose what makes the best sense to us. If we struggle with juggling more than one view at a time, we make a decision. Once we have decided what we will believe, we stick to it, because rejecting that belief would make us look like fools for believing it in the first place.
The digital world vastly enhances the range of voices that could make us perpetually uncertain unless we choose to believe one thing instead of another. The more varying the information we encounter, the bigger the problem. Compound this with fake news sites and unfounded conspiracy theories, and it’s a wonder than anyone maintains a grip on reality.
Is that really us?
My explanations seem to picture a certain kind of person—narrow-minded, gullible, and unable to distinguish good information from bad. Such people are what Paul Zurkowski described back in 1974 as “information-illiterate” (files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED100391.pdf). The solution is to provide them with the kind of instruction that ramps them up to a point where they can make better sense of the world. Or so we think.
But this is the issue: Purveyors of information literacy can unwittingly put themselves in the position of social engineers. The internet has brought confusion on an uncritical populace, and our solution is to “fix” people, equipping them with critical faculties that enable them to distinguish truth and reliability from nonsense. We, the information-literate, know how to do this, and we’re not likely to be fooled ourselves. Given enough education, everyone can be like us.
But is the population as stupid as this vision would say it is? Most people live their lives making smart decisions and functioning very well. Yet a lot of them buy into unfounded ideas and utterly false “news” with seeming ease. Who are these people? Why is there such a disconnect between the sanity of their daily lives and the bizarre nature of what they trust from the media?
I think the foundational issue is not one of stupidity but of the world population never before having experienced an information world without filters. For good or ill, most of our information sources, pre-internet, filtered out the worst excesses of falsehood and unreliability. Traditional patterns of information dissemination, while far from perfect, kept the level of craziness down. Sure, folks would gather in coffee houses or bars to banter about the latest conspiracy theory. But they had no means to disseminate that theory widely. The internet has largely abandoned gatekeeping, making viral dissemination an everyday occurrence.
While it is not a good idea to have publishers filter everything for us, the alternative—an information world without filters—makes confusion inevitable. In the midst of such confusion, we tend to believe what we already believe (or suspect), making it easy to fall prey to falsehood.
ATTEMPTS TO FIX IT
Obviously, if there is a spate of false news and wild notions primarily spawned online, we could try to stop the flow at its source or at least warn people about the dubious nature of individual pieces of this stuff. Search engines and social media are beginning to take their roles in vetting online claims seriously, recognizing that they are more than just neutral platforms for discourse.
Facebook has now made a pledge to address false news with a combination of user reporting and third-party fact-checking (newsroom.fb.com/news/2016/12/news-feed-fyi-addressing-hoaxes-and-fake-news). The result will be warnings along the lines of, “Disputed by third parties: Before you share this story you might want to know that independent fact-checkers have disputed its accuracy.” Such stories will sit lower in Facebook’s rankings and will thus not be shared as often.
These approaches are essentially interventionist tools to warn the public of lies and error under the assumption that cutting off or vetting the flow of falsehood will make a more honest world, or at least an environment where fewer people are fooled.
A second way of addressing online falsehood is to debunk it directly. We have long had websites that dispute falsehoods, the most well-known being Snopes (snopes.com). The advantage is that other people, with hopefully more objectivity and better skills than the rest of us, do the vetting and provide us with the answer. There are several disadvantages. First, many of the people most likely to believe wild stories are unlikely to check out such sites. Second, none of these sites can keep up with the proliferation of post-truth statements flooding the internet. Third, even when falsehoods are debunked, true believers will go on believing nonsense. Fourth, since these sites do everything for us, they are not encouraging the development of discernment skills.
The most significant effort in this regard is International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) from Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Not only does it monitor fact-checking efforts worldwide, publish articles on fact-checking issues, and provide fact-checking training, but it is the author of a code of principles used by a multitude of fact checkers. This sort of approach is probably useful overall, as long as people pay attention to it.
Facebook and several news outlets have stepped up to embrace IFCN. So too has Snopes, the primary debunker of falsehoods. This gives it the kind of credibility that should add dramatically to its importance.
Factmata, backed by Google, is working on a fully automated means to do fact-checking, arguing that human checking can’t compete with the immense volume of online material needing to be investigated. Google admits that developing the required algorithms is a daunting task, but it is game to try.
Finding ways to debunk falsehood may be a help, but those of us who believe in information literacy see another option—providing the public with tools to do their own fact-checking.
THE INFORMATION-LITERACY OPTION
I don’t believe that information-literate people are elitists just because they don’t swallow any message that is in accord with their prejudices. That’s too simple. The distinction is this: People who hang onto their prejudices and believe even falsehoods in support of those prejudices are lacking in confidence. If they have not engaged in information-literacy development, they are often missing the tools to handle threats to their convictions. Thus, they hunker down and believe even outrageous things that seem to offer places of safety.
Information literacy gives people both a mindset and the tools to live confidently in the midst of contradictory voices. Information literacy makes its foundation a commitment to answers based on evidence, and it provides the means for asking the right questions and evaluating the evidence to develop convictions based on solid data. Rather than letting existing prejudices form the bedrock for life, the information-literate rest on what can be verified and demonstrated. Even if the evidence points in a direction that is against existing beliefs, the information-literate still have confidence that they will land in the right place as long as they use the tools that support good investigation.
IT COMES DOWN TO THIS
Do I believe that we can conquer the false news and wild ideas that are inundating us? Not really. There will always be perpetrators of falsehood and people who lack the confidence or ability to step out of their safe zones and really investigate truth claims.
But I do believe that information literacy is our best path to develop people who can meet the post-truth era with the abilities that are required to conquer it. This is not elitist, because anyone can become information-literate. Nor is it part of any particular ideological agenda, since it counters ideology by urging us to follow the evidence.
The most pressing enemy at the gates today is conjecture and speculation masquerading as authority. What we absolutely must not lose are the pattern of critical thinking and the rules of evidence that characterize best practice in determining the reliability of information we encounter. A strong information-literacy agenda will keep that pattern alive and teach the abilities to use it well. No agenda is more important.
William Badke (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate librarian at Trinity Western University and the author of Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog, Fifth Edition (iUniverse.com, 2014).
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