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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2017

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Vol. 37 No. 2 — March 2017
FEATURE

Information Literacy is Dead: The Role of Libraries in a Post-Truth World
by Ben Johnson

The fake news stories of 2016 were exceedingly easy to disprove, and fact-checkers were quick to point out their inaccuracies - but none of that mattered.
Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 was “post-truth,” a term it defines as any circumstance “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” So maybe truth didn’t die in 2016; it just took a backseat.

It was certainly a year of memorable news headlines. Do you remember “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump”? And who could forget “Florida Man Dies in Meth-Lab Explosion After Lighting Farts on Fire”? Of course, neither of these things happened. These “news” stories were just stories—the products of clickbait factories, which are churning out and disseminating false information. The point of the deception was to make money. Any influence on public opinion was, for the most part, a byproduct of the fake news sausage-making.

The fake news stories of 2016 were exceedingly easy to disprove, and fact-checkers were quick to point out their inaccuracies—but none of that mattered. According to an analysis by BuzzFeed, fake news about U.S. politics accounted for 10.6 million of the 21.5 million total shares on Facebook during the period of study. The headlines were so sensational and so emotionally appealing that people just had to share them. And it looked legit enough—since all of it comes from sites that are made to look exactly the same as establishment media sites. In the end, American adults were fooled by these fake news headlines 75% of the time.

The heated political and social discourse of 2016 was fueled by appeals to emotion and personal belief—objective facts were so ineffective in swaying public opinion that they were barely relevant to the conversation. Sensational fake news stories often outperformed real news, and fact-checkers were dismissed by fake news consumers on both sides of the political spectrum who were suspicious of established media and of any facts that conflicted with their beliefs. Their efforts to disprove stories only gave those stories more airtime, lending to their truthiness—that intuitive “seems true enough” gut feeling that is often all the proof we need.

All of this puts libraries in an awkward spot.

The Core Values of Librarianship, as expressed by the American Library Association (ALA), reads similarly to a 2016 casualty list: privacy, diversity, social responsibility, etc. Libraries were established under the assumption that information is a tool of social good. During World War II, with the future of democracy in question, Franklin D. Roosevelt described libraries as the “great symbols of the freedom … essential to the functioning of a democratic society.” But if information is a cornerstone of democracy, what happens when that cornerstone is built with lies? If information can be so effectively weaponized, is it still a tool of social good?

Championing a Dead Assumption

If facts are now irrelevant to our political and social discourse, where does that leave libraries? Libraries, which offer curated and authoritative information, are champions of a dead assumption. If facts and information are not to be trusted, libraries are surely untrustworthy institutions. Indeed, the very value of intelligence has been called into question in the wake of the 2016 election, as then President-elect Donald Trump shunned intelligence briefings and questioned the work of the intelligence community (a group of information professionals who exist to gather and verify facts to inform decisions). Indeed, Trump has questioned whether facts are even a thing and whether anything is knowable at all, making statements such as, “Nobody knows exactly what’s going on with computers.” This is a shocking departure from past presidents who sought, above all else, to project a sense of competent understanding and a superior command of the facts. When the leader of the free world does not care about facts, and when he questions whether it is even possible to know anything as a fact, the rest of us are given implicit permission to do the same. We are given permission to remove facts from the equation when making decisions and formulating opinions.

For years, libraries have extoled the virtues of information literacy. We have insisted that facts are important. We have insisted that it is critical to recognize where information is needed, to evaluate it, and to effectively use it. We failed.

Analysis and critical thinking were a feeble defense, easily overrun by a torrent of opinion and raw emotion. It seems that many people were extremely literate with the skill, “use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.” No one seemed interested in “evaluat[ing] information and its sources critically.” These skills or goals, outlined in ALA’s definition of information literacy, were employed—but not en masse.

Weapons of Mass Deconstruction

We are told that we live in an age of information warfare. Information and communication technologies are weapons to be used to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent—and an opponent is anyone with a competing worldview. When a community believes something, and that something is proven false, continuing to believe it—even in the face of overwhelming evidence—is an expression of faith. Believing in a disproved fact proves you are devoted to your community and to its worldview—even at the risk of ruining personal relationships. Any attempt at fact-checking is proof that your group is being persecuted. The same mentality applies whether you are a liberal crusading against vaccines or a conservative crusading against climate science.

Libraries strive to provide reliable information, but facts have proven to be an obsolete technology in this information war. Just as Facebook insists that it is not a media company (thereby shirking its responsibility as the editors of the largest newspaper the world has ever known), libraries insist that we are a neutral party. But are our efforts to promote intellectual freedom—a diehard dogma in library science, which resists all forms of censorship—also a cover? Does our total commitment to intellectual freedom stand even if it means sacrificing those other stated values of public good, democracy, and social responsibility?

Voltaire once said, “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” But it seems that Voltaire was wrong, and reading can do harm. Today, a single tweet can unleash an army of internet trolls. Authoritarian regimes, such as that of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, use social media to crack down on dissent and maintain power.

It seems as if it’s a distant memory, but we once thought that Facebook and Twitter were heralds of a new era—a time in which the voices of ordinary people would rise above the voices of the insiders. Today, it seems that these platforms are all but unusable to anyone except trolls, advertisers, dictators, and robots.

Social media companies were agnostic about the issue of authenticity, and the consumers of social media were unable or unwilling to differentiate facts from fabrications. The problem of fake news on social media was exacerbated when Facebook decided to fire its human content curators. Accused of bias, Facebook sought an engineering solution to a human problem: The company allowed algorithms to decide what news to show. And in social media, where popularity is the only meaningful measure of quality, fake news proved to be more popular.

As a librarian, it is interesting to see Facebook wrestle with the issue of authenticity, because it is a problem that libraries have recognized for centuries. As a result, libraries have human checks for nearly every aspect of library science. Human librarians review and evaluate materials. Human librarians select and purchase materials. Human librarians process and catalog materials. Human librarians write collection development policies and weed out materials that present misinformation. Human librarians are concerned that the information on our shelves is timely and accurate.

It is apparent that many social media users don’t care about authenticity. But does Facebook have a public responsibility to provide accurate information, even if that sometimes means fewer clicks (read: dollars)? Do libraries have that same responsibility? ALA states that individuals have the right to “seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” In that same statement, ALA says, “Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed.” But what happens when these two statements are at odds? What happens when information “without restriction” diminishes the ability of our citizenry to be well-informed?

The Proof Is in the Narrative

If facts are now irrelevant to our political and social discourse, where does that leave libraries?

In 2016, we learned that, in social media, news is shared as a marker of identity. We do not share news to inform or persuade our peers. We share news to display our dedication to a community, feeling, or ideology. Sharing a news story reaffirms the viewpoint of our enclosed online community. It is a demonstration of shared values that strengthens our community ties. The value to be gained is not in learning, but in in-group bonding. It is not driven by a desire for knowledge, but by our primal human impulse to divide into groups. This social function of online news-sharing again disrupts a central tenet of librarianship.

Libraries, we claim, share information, therefore leading to a more informed electorate. Exposure to a wide variety of views, we claim, leads to greater social cohesion. But 2016 proves that more information and diversity of viewpoints do not necessarily lead to a better informed or more cohesive union. In fact, these things may have been contingent on people receiving a relatively small and homogeneous stream of information. With a diversity of facts from which to choose, picking one is a style choice—something akin to wearing Nike instead of New Balance. It is not about processing a set of facts and making a decision—it is about picking the facts that you want to be true.

Of course, fake news is not a new phenomenon. In the era of yellow journalism, Hearst and Pulitzer employed methods such as sensationalist headlines (today, we call that clickbait)—often misreporting or exaggerating events to gain more readers. But back then, the rules of journalism had not been established. In the 19th century, newspapers were explicitly tied to political parties—the editor only expressed party positions on all issues and cursed the opposition. Today, with “establishment media” playing by the new rules, a new/old type of journalism has waged asymmetric war, abandoning the agreed-on rules of journalism.

In George Orwell’s 1984, party leaders sought to edit or destroy documents to eliminate proof of their lying. But in today’s dystopian information age, we have found a more efficient method. Rather than destroy facts, we simply manufacture a story—a competing narrative—that triggers a strong emotion. We repeat that story over and over again, until it becomes fact. With competing facts, the one that elicits the stronger emotional response wins out.

Libraries in the Brave New World

The luster of the internet has faded, giving way to a great but treacherous information landscape. As librarians, we must resist the urge to say, “I told you so.” At best, we were impotent, and at worst, we were complacent in this shift away from truth. We must recognize that misinformation thrives because it pays the bills. Sensational fake news spreads similarly to wildfire through social media, generating quick money in an otherwise income-starved news media. The problem is not with the media producers, but with how we have engineered our platforms.

Librarians worry that maybe we are less relevant than we used to be. But the events of 2016 prove that we are more important than ever. Imagine if Facebook used ALA’s Core Values to help shape its algorithms. Imagine if Google used information literacy standards to help determine a story’s relevance. Imagine if a story was promoted above others not solely because it generated clicks, but also because it is factually correct.

Libraries have sought to provide access to diverse viewpoints. We have carefully curated collections that include perspectives from all ends of the political spectrum and from all social areas. But we have, at every step, insisted on quality and accuracy. It is important to remember that insisting on facts is not a bias. Both sides of any argument can and should be presenting reality-based arguments. If one publication is presenting facts and the other fabrications, a librarian is not being biased by only selecting the former. If a librarian provides false information, that librarian is promoting false information.

Many librarians will argue the opposite—that it is up to the information consumer (in our case, the library patron) to make individual judgments about authenticity. They will argue that it is not our role to select what is correct, only what is popular. But if we are preaching the gospel of information literacy, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to those same standards of critical evaluation? It is unfair to place an expectation of information judgment solely on a consumer, while the information distributor knowingly and actively supplies false data.

Right now, libraries have the rarest and most precious thing in the world: a respected and trusted brand. People (even those who don’t use the library) think of us as guardians of facts and knowledge. We are thought of as reliable and dependable. And as distrust of news outlets and social media grows, our reputation remains mostly intact. Sure, we are in a position of diminished influence—we are maybe not as relevant as Facebook in people’s daily lives—but we should not lose sight of why people love and trust libraries. We should resist that pervasive clickbait urge to grow in popularity at all costs. Our communities support libraries because we are reputable and fair, not because we are the hottest and most exciting entertainment source.

Strong libraries build strong communities. We must insist that we provide quality information, even if our communities choose not to use it. And if false information wins the day, we can take comfort in knowing that we kept the option of truth available. We made it theoretically possible for people to sort through the stories and get to the facts. We presented historical information that could have informed the discussion.

And if the world ever gets tired of ignorant shouting matches, it will remember us. Through all of the mess, the library will emerge with its reputation intact. People will come back, not for ammunition to fight the information war, but to grow as individuals and as citizens.


Ben Johnson (bjohnson@councilbluffslibrary.org) is the adult services manager at the Council Bluffs Public Library in Iowa.