A full 64 percent of U.S. adults recently polled by the Pew Research Center say fake news sows “a great deal of confusion” about basic facts. Another 24 percent concede that it creates “some confusion,” confirming the obvious: we have a news information crisis on our hands.
This data comes just a month after the results of a November 2016 study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education (PDF) that provides alarming evidence that the vast majority of our kids cannot evaluate the legitimacy of resources. Many are unable to tell if a news story is real or fabricated. That major study, plumbing responses from some 7,804 students total across 12 states, combined with Pew’s look at adult capacities and perceptions should have alarms ringing. Our kids need help, and the bulk of the adults in their lives are not prepared to provide it or model care about the validity of what they read and share as news.
Call it propaganda, yellow journalism, or fake news, this problem has been around for as long as there have been tools of persuasion available (check out a fascinating look at the roots of this history from Politico). Accelerated by social media sharing, these stories can get shared around the globe in mere minutes, informing impressions and attitudes along the way, and be nearly impossible to debunk.
While the bulk of the Pew respondents claimed that they can tell when they are reading fake news, the results are nevertheless disturbing. While a full 39 percent feel “very confident” they can recognize fake news, 45 percent landed on “somewhat confident” and 15 percent were “not very/at all confident.”
I’d argue that “somewhat” is not good enough. Add that to their acknowledgment that 23 percent of respondents said they participated in proliferating fake news by sharing it—whether they knew it was bogus at the time or not. Regardless of confidence, there is a lot of “fake” slipping through the cracks. Adults need help, too, but they may not be as open to receiving it if they don’t see a problem for themselves.
Even if the adults above knew a story was false, one has to ask why they chose to share it, helping it gain traction, unless, my internal optimist says, they were trying to debunk it. I fear that all too many were merely amused and not attending to the deeper issue at stake. Caring about the truth, facts, valid information, documented stories, and research—and modeling that care—goes to the very heart of library work. It starts with kids and, if well planted, serves throughout a lifetime.
There is much work ahead, and libraries need to reinvest energy and creativity in their approach to this type of literacy. As Linda Jacobson details in this month’s cover story, “The Smell Test”, school librarians are frontline respondents to this crisis. Of course, there is a role for public librarians as well. The practical guide “How To Spot Fake News” from Lissa Staley at Topeka & Shawnee County (KS) Public Library is an example of how to approach the basics with a constructive voice—and it puts the library and librarians in the middle of the conversation. Tools abound, as does renewed urgency. New strategies should follow quickly—we need them now.
Rebecca T. Miller
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