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Creating a Playbook to Combat Fake News
Volume 43, Number 4 - July/August 2019


Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center, delivered a keynote at the 2019 Computers in Libraries conference in Washington, D.C. In the address, he emphasized the importance of the role of librarians and information professionals in shepherding the public through the news landscape ( Rainie pointed to a September 2017 Pew survey in which 31% of participants agreed that “getting training on how to use online re sources to find trustworthy information would help them a lot in making decisions.” It is imperative that librarians provide this training, and it seems that we have a mandate: The same Pew survey found that libraries and librarians were the number-one trusted providers of information sources. We even edged out healthcare providers this time, who were trusted by 39% of adults in comparison with 40% for librarians. Rainie also shared a list of what people want and need:

  • Smart allies
  • Improved curators
  • Proof of authenticity
  • Transparency
  • More confidence that they can learn and grow
  • Just-in-time help in decision making
  • More training on tech use and information literacy
  • Organizations that will help and protect them

While acknowledging the difficulty of providing all of these elements, Rainie pointed out that this list reads like a “play book” of librarianship. So how can we leverage this list to create a “playbook” for the game of fake news so that we can serve as coaches for our constituents? What follows are some suggestions for our own best practices as well as guidelines that we can use in educating others.

Best Practices Playbook FOR Fighting Fake News

Thinking about Rainie’s comments, I came up with six plays for a librarians’ playbook for fighting fake news.

Play One: Hit the Pause Button

Oftentimes, it makes sense to enter fake news evaluation with an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent.” If our automatic assumption is that suspect news is fake until we are able to convince ourselves otherwise, we will go a long way toward protecting our reputation as purveyors of quality information. To start, just like the old adages to vent your feelings in an angry letter that you don’t send, or to wait 20 minutes after eating before taking a second helping (to make sure you truly are still hungry and do not end up overeating), it is a good idea to take a step back and implement evaluation checks before accepting news as truth.

Play Two: IFLA Checklist

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) issued a guide for determining if news is fake, which went viral almost overnight (part of its widespread popularity could be due to the fact that Christiane Amanpour of CNN endorsed it on-air as a valuable tool for readers to use when trying to avoid fake news). Its first tenet is “Consider the Source.” This consideration starts by reading the About Us section of the website (if it doesn’t have one, that is a red flag). Consider the domain name—websites ending in “lo” (i.e., newslo) often mix accurate and inaccurate information, and those ending in .news (i.e., may be fake sites masquerading as real news sites. Also, remember that domain names ending in .wordpress are typically personal blogs. That is not to say that they are sources of fake news, but blogs do not undergo the same editorial process as those of traditional news sources.

Step two on the IFLA list is “Check the Author.” Is the author reputable, or is there no author? Credibility is called in to question if no one is willing to stand behind the information in the article. The third step is “Check the Date.” This step requires more than one consideration. Marydee Ojala, editor-in-chief of Online Searcher, offers this caveat regarding date: “There’s one date that is a dead giveaway that this is fake news—April 1. Never confuse an April Fool’s prank with real news” (“Fake Business News,” Online Searcher, v. 41, no. 3, May/June 2017, pp. 60–62).

If the date is not April 1, ask yourself about the year it was published. That is not to say that an older article is false, but if you are providing news alerts and updates on topics of interest to your constituents, you probably don’t want to send out an article from 3 years ago.

IFLA’s caveat to “Check Your Biases” reminds us that our own worldview and past experience shape the way we interpret what we read. Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, has compiled a lengthy list of “Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources” (docs C3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview), labeling hundreds of websites with monikers such as “fake news,” “extreme bias,” “conspiracy theory,” “junk science,” “clickbait,” “credible,” and others. It is a good idea to consult the list and do a CTRL F for your source title if you are unsure of its motivation. Note, however, that she is no longer updating the list.

Step five in the IFLA checklist is “Read Beyond.” That is, do not make assumptions regarding content after reading only the article headline. For example, if a headline is written in all capital letters, it is probably trying to make the reader angry. A lack of quotes in the article is another red flag that the content may be fabricated rather than from a reliable source.

The next step requires looking for supporting sources. If the article contains hyperlinks to underlying research and other information, click on those links to make sure they actually pertain to the information discussed.

As with fake news, satire is certainly nothing new (just ask a Jonathan Swift scholar), but it can be harder to spot when it is comingled with hard news. Websites with satirical content typically have a legal or disclaimer section stating that its contents are meant to be humorous or to entertain, but when satire is created by real news sites, we need to take greater care. “The Borowitz Report” contains satirical news articles from New Yorker writer Andy Borowitz. When he posts links to the stories on Facebook, the posting site is the regular New Yorker Facebook page, and the actual New Yorker website address is listed as the article’s origin. However, in the middle of the graphic, it states that this is “Not the News.” Miss that sentence, and you have the potential to look pretty foolish. A lot of these “Borowitz Reports” are funny and tempting to share. Doris Helfer, chair of collection development and access services at California State University–Northridge, told me she advises librarians to add context when sharing these or other humorous posts. When she shares a link to “The Borowitz Report” on Facebook, she adds a line such as, “I love the satire of ‘The Borowitz Report’,” in order to give readers a heads up.

The IFLA graphic ends with “Ask an Expert. Ask a Librarian.” Another piece of advice is to use a fact-checking site. Snopes (, PolitiFact (, and offer transparent methodologies and evaluation criteria and are widely recognized for their credibility. My personal favorite is The Washington Post Fact Checker ( This tool subjects reader-submitted statements to the “Pinocchio Test.” Statements that play a little fast and loose with the truth are given one Pinocchio (an actual icon of Pinocchio). Statements that are misleading or have significant omissions or exaggerations merit two Pinocchios. Mostly false statements with significant errors fit the three Pinocchios category, and “whoppers” get four Pinocchios. In December 2018, a new category was added in response to the virality of fake news—claims that rated three or four Pinocchios and have been repeated at least 20 times are awarded the dubious distinction of the “Bottomless Pinocchio.” On the flipside, statements containing “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” earn the coveted “Geppetto checkmark” (an upside down Pinocchio).

Play Three: Fake Tweets

In April 2013, a fake tweet, appearing to be from the Associated Press, which reported that an explosion at the White House had injured President Barack Obama, went viral. At first glance, it looked to be a real tweet from the AP’s account; it contained the blue check mark indicating that the account was Twitter-verified. However, the AP account had been hacked, and there were other indications that the tweet was fabricated.

There was no corroboration of this news (this AP account was the only news outlet reporting the information), and standard protocols were ignored: A real AP tweet would use the term “President Obama,” not “Barack Obama.” Also, there was no attribution. Real AP tweets of breaking news typically begin with the source of the information. Additional hallmarks of fake Twitter accounts are handles that consist of words or names followed by a series of random numbers and handles whose names are a variation on the information they are tweeting.

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Amy Affelt is director, Database Research, Compass Lexecon and author of The Accidental Data Scientist: Big Data Applications and Opportunities for Librarians and Information Professionals (Information Today, 2015).


Comments? Email the editor-in-chief:

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