True or False: Fake News, and Internet Literacy

It’s never been more apparent than now of just how much how much millennials love their mobile devices.

Take just a few meager steps at your local college campus and you’d see no less than ten people buried in their phones as they rush to their next class. Walk into a coffee shop and every hipster in there has a cup of coffee in one hand, and their finger swiping through their newsfeed on the other. If you ask a twenty-something to pull up their favorite viral video, they can whip out their phones in .5 seconds flat and thumb through their internet browser history to show you.

Our smartphones have made it insanely easy to access the internet in all its immensity. The treasure trove of information that is encapsulated within our little cellular devices makes it that much easier, and that much faster to get the answers to the questions that pop up in our daily lives.

And when it comes to consuming news, it’s become a walk in the park.

There’s no more need to flip through a magazine or for you to walk by a newsstand and buy a physical newspapers. Suddenly, everyone’s getting their news on Twitter or Facebook: a study conducted by Pew Research in March 2016 has found that 62% of Americans are getting their news primarily from social media. And why not? It’s right there in your pocket, and it’s easy, mostly free, and convenient.

But, as they say, with this great power comes great responsibility. There’s a tradeoff to this lightning fast accessibility and this immense amount of instantaneous info. The internet has provided us a huge quantity of information, sure – but what about the quality?

This is where fake news comes in to play.

Sifting Through the Cesspool

One of the most shared false articles last year on Facebook was based on a hoax, and it stated that then-president Obama had signed an executive order banning students from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at schools – it received 2.1 million in shares, comments, and reactions despite the article’s lack of cited evidence. Another popular article that spread false news back in October stated that Obama’s mother-in-law was set to receive a 160k pension for babysitting her grandkids. It was posted on a website that was made to look like a legitimate news outlet, but was actually a ruse. The article was shared 17,000 times on Facebook, and, again, cited no other sources to back up their report.

The virility of fake information has existed even before the election season. In the early 2000’s, people would get all kinds of political conspiracy emails called “chain-emails” that touted false claims. One popular one claimed: “Bill Gates is giving away his fortunes – forward this to everyone and Microsoft will give you money!” As absurd as it sounds, chain emails like this would still circulate for many, many months until they became viral. I can attest to the fact because I got that same Bill Gates email from my mom back in middle school, and I had to explain to her that, “no mom, Bill Gates didn’t actually send that.”

Fake news and fake information has existed since the dawn of the information age, and it can spread like wildfire to the point where it’s impossible not to stumble upon. Unless you’ve vowed to never assimilate to the smartphone or social media culture (I commend you for that), I’m sure you’ve stumbled upon a factoid that seemed a little too awry to be true. Or had a friend who forwarded you a ridiculous sounding chain email.

An article written back in 2010 by the American Libraries magazine puts the reliability of the internet and social media in this way:

Yes, we need the internet, but in addition to all the scientific, medical, and historical information (when accurate), there is also a cesspool of waste. […] There is no quality control on the web, and there isn’t likely to be any.

See, the internet is like an endless black void if you don’t know how to sift through it. And for important endeavors such as conducting research for a paper or fact-checking a political candidate – or even if it’s just casual news gathering – using a Google search engine, a Wikipedia article, or your Facebook feed will most likely lead you to misinformation. You’d fall right into that cesspool of waste if you didn’t know how to wade through it.

The question then becomes: how do we wade through the waste and learn to decipher between what’s true and what’s false?
This is exactly where our public libraries become this indispensable and necessary beacon of information within such a troubling time rife with false and baseless facts.

Honing in on Internet Literacy Skills

It’s common for us to think that the rise of internet accessibility may end up overtaking the library as our main source for information – but it is actually the other way around. Other than the fact that the library is one of the most democratic of institutions in their continued and lasting endeavors to provide equity of access, they are also an invaluable resource to the community at large. There is a visceral need for a resource such as our public and academic libraries because the internet is still (and will most likely remain) vastly imperfect in the way it fails to control viral outbreaks of false information. Besides, when it comes to information literacy, the library plays an integral role for the community at-large since not everyone has daily access to the internet.

A recent study done by Pew Research in 2016 on the status of libraries in our American society has revealed that people continue to entrust the library the responsibility of providing them the tools needed to discern what information to trust:

… there is also a growing sense that libraries can help people decide what information they can trust: 37% of Americans feel that public libraries contribute “a lot” in this regard, a 13-point increase from a survey conducted at a similar point in 2015.

Now, there are two ways that the Contra Costa Library has made it so we can be more literate when it comes to internet information: there is their online database you can access from the comforts of your smartphone device, or driving down to the physical library itself.

The Contra Costa Library provides access to a varied number of news outlets and journals through an information provider, NewsBank. This tool can be accessed through the “Newspaper Guide” on the library’s website, and all you need is your library card to log-in. It’s well-organized as well as diverse in its content. Scrolling through their list of “Special Reports” gives you a list of in-depth news reports on the topic of your choosing from numerous news sources. Not only that, but the reports and articles provided via this database have been verified as reliable, curated, and come from trusted sources. It’s also easy to cross-check information because when you click on a specific topic, it gives you a wide variety of articles coming from different perspectives and publications.

But if you still need help with filtering good news from the bad ones, there are our librarians. This is particularly ideal for people conducting research for a huge paper. Instead of trying to find information via a Google search engine (which is like looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes), you can walk right up to a librarian and ask. I can personally attest to the fact that librarians are the most helpful resources you’ll have in your college life. More often than not, when I’m at the beginning stages of conducting research for an essay, I ask a librarian for a list of primary sources surrounding my topic of interest. I assure you, the books and resources they recommend are ten times more informative and more reliable than a possibly misleading blog post on the web. The added bonus of having face-to-face interaction is also a boost because you get personalized recommendations from someone who is certifiably information-literate.

Additionally, libraries also offer workshops for the not-so tech savvy individuals who simply need help with the basics of using their devices before they begin to dive into doing serious internet-based research. The Pleasant Hill Library, for example, offers services such as the “Teen Tech Help Desk” where you can drop in if you’re in need of guidance with your tech devices.

Is it worth the extra time and effort to conduct this kind of research and fact-checking? Yes, it is. Because it’s just as they say: the truth is hard to find. If we care about what goes in our heads and what comes out of our mouths (or, frankly, what we type out passive aggressively on our Facebook statuses), it’s worth it to take the minuscule amount of time and effort to cross-check and analyze where we’re getting our information.

This isn’t a skill that only students like me should be perfecting, but an essential skill for anyone and everyone – especially if you’re reading this article through your smartphone device. With how quickly user-generated content is being put out on the internet and the wider and more varied internet content becomes, the more detailed and attentive we have to be in our explorations of the deep, enigmatic – and sometimes, dark – web that’s rife with false information.

Librarian-curated resources and librarians themselves are our allies in this battle for truth.

If fake news continues to persevere the way it is now, internet information literacy might be one of the most important skills we need in this dynamic and inscrutable Age of Information. We must remain ever vigilant.