Emotions: Fake News and Fact Checks

by Micah Gjeltema, Montana Tech

Coming out of 2016, I feel as though all I’ve been reading about is the “fake news” of our “post-truth” world as information is processed and opinions are formed based on “feels not reals.” However, as a librarian I’m sure that’s just another bubble I’ve got going on–our students/patrons, for the most part, won’t have devoted as much time to these information literacy crises.

What resources (exercises, videos, examples) do you find helpful for explaining and demonstrating good information literacy habits specifically in the face of willful misinformation intended to be consumed in casual (non-academic) spaces, like social media and conversation?

The obvious challenge is to speak apolitically on the matter, since it’s so thoroughly a political issue at this point. On the flip-side, does anyone have strategies to specifically address politics in regards to information literacy? Tricky waters.

One video I like is “This Video Will Make You Angry.” It was uploaded before the idea of fake news came to prominence, and doesn’t actually focus on news, exactly, instead discussing the idea of ideas as germs and the way that the internet amplifies the effect. It explores the way bubbles form, and how ideas spread more successfully when they’re exaggerated to the extreme that will make the intended audience the most emotional, typically appealing to anger. What we’re really talking about is critical thinking, but I sometimes think students have heard “critical thinking” so often that it’s less meaningful. Talking specifically about the role of emotion when evaluating information seems like a more accessible way to engage students, especially when discussing non-academic contexts. You can also discuss misinformation as those everyday germs that are inevitable and normal, so we wash our hands regularly, and fake news as being germ-warfare or poison–intentional sickening that requires a diligent regimen of vaccines and antidotes.

Another more recent video I found interesting concerned the myth of annual spider-eating. The creator explores the idea that you eat 8 spiders a year in your sleep, which is a commonly debunked fact. However, this scenario reveals the many possible layers of misinformation–the fact is often debunked using language from snopes.com, which posits that the original “fact” came from an attempt to show how misinformation spreads. But the video creator then explores that information and finds that the citation used to disprove the myth is itself unverifiable and may be a myth itself, suggesting that it may even a meta example of Snopes playfully spreading misinformation about the playful spread of misinformation. Again, the takeaway is to think critically, but also to be aware that fact-checking organizations are not infallible, and are certainly not a substitute for the primary source. You can also highlight “being wrong” vs. “lying.” I do hesitate to wade into “don’t trust anything at all, why even bother” territory, but it is helpful to demonstrate the many layers of misinformation that may exist, and to emphasize the idea that even if you’re using high-confidence information in an argument, you must still concede the 5% chance that you are inaccurate, leaving yourself open to new information and critical thinking rather than doubling down. The follow-up question, of course, is “how much do we trust this video, and what do we do about that?”

In a politically charged climate, even the idea of fake news has become difficult to talk about, when everyone is using the label to undermine the opposing argument without holding their argument to the same standard; because these videos don’t actually use the term “fake news,” that may actually make them more suitable for framing the idea.

What do you think? What examples do you use to discuss these ideas, and do you address the idea of “fake news” at all? How should we, as librarians address politically weaponized misinformation? How does the approach change in a classroom vs. at the reference desk, or with academic vs. public audiences?

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