Librarians Say: Be Skeptical of Fake News

According to Evanston Public Library librarians, whether you call it propaganda, urban legend, public relations, disinformation, or alternative facts, “fake news” is nothing new. Librarians have been trained to help patrons think critically and determine whether what they see and read can be trusted. “Don’t trust everything you read,” says Ben Remsen, adult services librarian. “Remember that fake news and legitimate news come from for-profit organizations,” he adds.

Heather Norborg, reference librarian, who is in charge of the Digital Literacy Initiative at the library, says that the program works to develop the basic confidence and familiarity to navigate the Internet and online information. She teaches participants to dive deep and make sure that what the source says is true. “Like a journalist at a reputable organization, you have to do your own fact checking,” Norborg says.

First of all, librarians advise:

Consider the source. Remsen says to trust only sources that have been edited or fact checked. “Take a step back and consider what you’re reading,” Remsen says. “One of the foundational issues is assuming that the published word has been edited. It’s a jump people make who think that a massive corporation like Google has real and robust editing.”

Remember that social media often is not a trustworthy source. “Don’t take social media posts at face value,” says Latino Engagement Librarian Miguel Ruiz. “Often getting information is like the game ‘Telephone.’ We need to learn where they got the information.” Norborg reminds patrons that “Social media is driven by clicks and ‘likes.’ But understand that social media platforms can be actively manipulated.”

Check the author. Don’t forget that the authors, whether on social media or journalistic giants, are people, too. “Anyone can write a blog and put it online, says Remsen. He tells the story of teaching a class at another library where he demonstrated how easy it is to publish a blog saying anything you want.

Check the date of the story. In today’s 24-hour news cycle things can change quickly. Make sure you check when that article was originally published.

Check your biases and make sure they’re not clouding your judgment. Look for sources beyond the mainstream. It’s a common human failing to look for information that confirms your position. “Ask yourself, ‘What is their bias?’” says Norborg. “Am I reading this with a critical eye or am I agreeing with this because of my own subconscious biases, such as race, age, or location?”

Read beyond the headlines. “Many headlines are written to make users click on them,” says Ruiz. Before sharing something on social media, make sure you read the full story. Sometimes people post things when they’ve only read the headline and those who read it all can be surprised—or confused.

Look for supporting sources. Do your due diligence. Librarians can help you find sources beyond the mainstream. “We can help you pick reputable sources that are accurate in terms of policy, sources that provide authentic information,” says Ruiz.

Ruiz also talks about issues that affect the Latino/Latina community specifically. “I often communicate with new immigrants who have information and cultural gaps and are learning to go through the process of fact checking,” he says. If there are rumors about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for example, he directs those concerned to check with the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights as a trusted source.

When you’re doing your own fact checking, especially when it’s something that’s too good to be true, there are trusted information sources that can be helpful like the websites Snopes or Politifact. There are additional sources for the Spanish-speaking:  Duke Reporters’ Lab (Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy) includes a world map of fact-checking resources around the globe. It provides sites from all over Latin America that fact check in Spanish. Also, Univision Media Group (U.S. Spanish Media Conglomerate) has a “Detector de Mentiras” (lie detector) that serves as a fact checker. It has an active Twitter feed as well.

Is it a joke? Be careful of satire. The Onion and Andy Borowitz, for example, are written to entertain, not to be considered as truth. “Trust is great,” says Ruiz, ‘but consider the context.”

Norborg advises not to believe what you read until you’ve checked it. She suggests applying the CRAAP test to evaluate and think critically about information online: Consider its Currency, the timeliness of its information; its Relevance, the importance of its information; its Authority, the source of the information; its Accuracy, the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content; and its Purpose, the reason the information exists. From this evaluation, decide whether to accept the information as trustworthy.

Ask the librarians. The librarians agree that it’s important to be skeptical about news—fake or otherwise. “One of the things we do is helping to build awareness and provide information to the community,” says Ruiz. “This is inherent in the library mission—this is what we’re here for. You can always come to us.”

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