Information Literacy in a False/Fake News World was the next to last program of IALL’s 2017 annual course. It featured a panel of three law library directors: Carol Watson, Director, Alexander Campbell King Law Library at the University of Georgia School of Law; Kristina L. Niedringhaus, Associate Dean for Library and Information Services and Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law; and Caroline Osborne, Assistant Dean of Legal Information Services and Professor of Legal Research, Washington & Less School of Law. ‘Fake news’ is being tossed around like grenades, especially by those unhappy with coverage by mainline media, to blow-up the credibility of the traditional press. There are also incidents of social media being used to spread deliberate untruths to undermine individuals and movements. This presentation was well timed to provide historical context to false/fake news, why we should care about false/fake news, and how to address false/fake news in our information literacy instruction.
Ms. Watson addressed the history of “fake news” and its predecessor, “false news.” First, to make sure we have a common starting point, she offered the definition that false/fake news is information that is a deliberately misleading attempt to publish non-true facts. But not all false/fake news is bad. Propaganda, satire, and hoaxes are all examples of false/fake news which are published for purposes to persuade, educate, and entertain for positive reasons. Recorded incidents of false/fake news go back a millennium. During the Octavian-Antony conflicts in ancient Rome, Octavian distributed coins with fake slogans accusing Antony of being anti-Roman by planning to move the empire’s capital to Egypt. Since the printing press, false/fake news spreads even faster. Benjamin Franklin created his own fake news while in Paris during the American Revolution to stir up the French sympathy by printing fake newspapers that looked like Boston newspapers but with headlines he created about British allying with Indians to attack Americans. Watson pointed to the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, “post-truth,” as a sign we have entered a new stage in the information age.
Prof. Niedringhaus addressed the question why does false/fake news matter? Everyone
knows what it is and will treat it with disdain. But do they? She points to three case studies where false/fake news influenced popular thinking of many, well-educated individuals. They are the anti-vaccination movement, climate change denial, and fear of ethnic violence in South Sudan. Looking at just one of these, the anti-vaccination movement is based on the alleged connection of vaccines as a cause of autism. The claim was made in a 1998 article published in the highly respectable British medical journal Lancet, but the data behind the article could never be replicated by other researchers. The original author would later lose his medical license for his not completely truthful study. The article was retracted by the journal with the message that there was no scientific evidence to support the connection of vaccines to autism. But there are many people who still point to the article to support their belief and their steps not to get their children vaccinated.
Prof. Osborne brought the panel back to the here and now with advice on how law librarians develop information literacy by teaching their students critical analysis of the news. One easy step is to teach that we should not depend upon feeds from our social media as our only source of news. If you have the least question about the truth behind a news piece, track it back to its source and make the analysis whether the source is one you can trust, but does not merely confirm your own bias. Another check is whether the news is being carried by a variety of reliable sources. Osborne points out that ‘facts’ are a slippery slope in legal information literacy. While your typical dictionary, such as the current New Oxford American Dictionary, has only one entry for the word “fact,” the latest edition of Black’s Law Dictionary has the one entry with 55 sub-entries including one for “fabricated fact.”
The program was well worth the wait! While I have heard other programs about fake news given by journalists, editors, and publishers, this panel was the first I have heard made up of law librarians. Watson, Niedringhaus, and Osborne tied together the what, why, and how of fake news from the point of view of a legal information professional. Most importantly, they provided guidance how we should take on false/fake news in our own work. Fingers crossed, they will repeat this presentation to additional audiences.