The concept of alternative facts is not new. George Orwell’s novel 1984, published in 1949, called it “newspeak.” We might also call it propaganda or, more simply, lies. When you read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the facts are generally the same, but the perspective the writers take on them may differ wildly, which affects the way we react to the news. Our social networks do little to help us see the facts for what they really are. Algorithms record what we like and preselect posts that are conducive to our preferences. This filtering of our daily news diet gives us zero opposing views and, thus, a false sense of righteousness.
The advantage of alternative facts is that they sell newspapers and earn click-throughs. The more outrageous the sound bite or tweet, the more readers will be drawn in. The problem is that the brazenness of the lies creates a false state of panic, which over time can wear down our collective vigilance. Since false claims are easy to manufacture, a new threat can be introduced on a daily (if not hourly) basis. While the traditional media scramble to disprove the latest rhetorical pipe bomb lobbed into the public’s psyche, the strain puts undue stress on people’s coping abilities. The nonstop information barrage can feel designed to distract us from more critical issues. Unfortunately, it seems to be succeeding. If left unchallenged, proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, public education, libraries, and health coverage would widely impact those who work in our industry.
Brooke Gladstone’s graphic novel The Influencing Machine illustrates a case study that found an unsettling fact. “You would assume that concrete evidence would dislodge false facts. Not so. If a statement is repeated often enough, people will believe it, even if it is labeled as false.” When I read this, I was terrified, because the people in power are acutely aware of this human weakness and are exploiting it.
Post-election, the American Library Association (ALA) has been promoting a system devised by the Miriam Library at California State Library–Chico. The CRAAP test stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. In short, the CRAAP test is able to reveal the difference between fake news and real news. Since the new president has taken power, the authority part of the CRAAP approach had to be revised, as someone’s title no longer means that he or she is an authority.
Over the years, our publishing company, Lee & Low Books, has published a great deal of nonfiction. Oftentimes the books are about historical figures of color who have made significant contributions to society but who have been ignored in mainstream social studies textbooks. We believe that by publishing these books, we are doing our part to bring a certain balance to American history. With every book, we strive to ensure to the best of our abilities that the story is factual. Whether the creators are of the same ethnic background as the subject or the author is writing from outside the subject’s culture, we insist that due diligence is done to ensure that we get it right. Because, as Walter Benjamin said, “History is often written by the victors,” we scrutinize research sources to balance out different (often inevitable) biases and make sure all voices in the story have been heard.
We also rely on outside readers to double check the facts that appear in our books. These readers are experts in specific subjects related to each title, either through their area of academic study or their personal cultural experience. They verify the facts that underlie the story and ensure that the language used in reference to race, culture, gender, and religious practice and traditions is accurate and respectful to the people portrayed in the book. This use of outside cultural readers has been our practice for decades. Indeed, two of our editors were quoted in a Washington Post article on what they called “sensitivity readers.” Some readers of this article immediately cried “censorship,” but the use of outside readers does not diminish or change the intentions of the author. Outside readers increase the accuracy of the book’s content and make for a better book overall.
Publishing children’s books is serious business. We have the responsibility of informing young minds. The stories we tell will leave lasting impressions on children, and we do not take this obligation lightly. What is ironic to me is that our standards at Lee & Low for ensuring that facts are accurate are much higher than the standards at Fox News and Breitbart, where false stories receive front page attention. I doubt much of the “news” covered by these outlets would pass muster if measured by the rigorous guidelines of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal! Equally disturbing is the overt disregard for the truth being exercised by President Trump and through his Twitter account.
The First Amendment entitles everyone to the right to speak an opinion. For better or worse, the Internet amplifies each individual’s voice. But an opinion should never disregard the facts and their context. Without the basis of fact for us to measure truth, the social justice of our society would quickly unwind, and our distrust of “the Other”—whomever we are designating as the scapegoat du jour—would make it impossible for us to be able to prove anything or convince anyone.
Our children are growing up in a world where basic facts are questioned and alternative facts are given a seat at the table. Is this what we want? As the adults in the room and custodians of our planet, we need to confront what it is we are up against and meet it head-on. Although facts may not always provide the answers we want to hear, by not standing up for a reality-based nation, we are giving alternate facts a leeway they do not deserve.
Jason Low is the publisher and a co-owner of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Founded in 1991, Lee & Low celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. Lee & Low was named the 2014 Indie Publisher of the Year by Foreword magazine. In 2016, the Eric Carle Museum selected Lee & Low as the recipient of its Angel Award for the company’s dedication to diverse books and to a new generation of artists and authors who offer children both mirrors and windows to the world.