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Ryan Matura Library Newsletter for Faculty 10 (January 2017)

Number 10, January 2017

The Lede

Fake News: A Test Case for Information Literacy

You will not see this everyday: Forbes Magazine and School Library Magazine agreeing on something.  Fake news is “a sign that we have failed as a society to teach our citizens how to think critically about data and information” (Forbes) and by extension, “I have two thoughts. One, I have to teach this better. And two, as information literacy experts, we school librarians are more important than ever.” (School Library Magazine)

A new study from Stanford University (.pdf) prompted both articles.  It revealed that “overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. . . When it comes to evaluating information that comes through social media channels, they are easily duped.”  This study was based on more than 7,000 student survey responses from 12 states –and it’s not a far stretch from those conclusions to the daily experience of my faculty colleagues at this University (and probably all others, including Stanford).

Too often in the past “information literacy” has been conflated with “library skills.”  The second is really subset of the first.  If a student does not know how to reason about information that comes through any channel, a library will not be much help –and quite possibly be intimidating. 

One problem is that “information literacy” can be a vague academic phrase that then means different things to different people.  It has definitions –especially two (2000 and 2016) from the Association of College and Research Libraries.  Too often information literacy has been reduced to asking a librarian to “show my class how to search a database,” when in fact what is more important is what to do with the search results –and by extension, any search on Google, or obvious clickbait.  Who wrote and produced a search result, and why?

A framework for information literacy can teach how to think about information all the time.  A classic example is to search Google for “Martin Luther King, Jr.”  In the first six or eight results, you will probably find links to Wikipedia, the King Center, and Stanford’s King Institute.  You will also find “Martin Luther King Jr. – A True Historical Examination” which appears to be a legitimate site until reading it becomes strange –and in small print at the bottom of the landing page, “Hosted by Stormfront,” a white supremacist and neo-Nazi internet forum, arguably the web’s first major racial hate site.  You have to read with critical awareness, because Stormfront’s site is reasonably well presented as “ordinary” media.  Students are “easily duped” by this kind of site (in Stanford’s words).

Are we in the “post-truth” era?  As one colleague told me, “Not in my classroom.”  Literate, faculty users of information of all types will still know: the truth is out there, and it still matters.  How do you include such literacy in your teaching?