Conspiracy theories, info lit, the fairness doctrine, and SIFT

Project Information Literacy launched a new series of essays a couple of weeks ago with a piece by Barbara Fister, Lizard People in the Library. An adapted version of this appeared on the Atlantic site today as The Librarian War Against QAnon. Fister makes a similar point to danah boyd’s (I’ve written about her work here before): information literacy is no panacea, and can even cement conspiracy theorists’ belief that if they “researched” something and found evidence, they are right. Since there is “evidence” aplenty for nearly any view online, this is dangerous.

Fister notes that the role of information literacy, and the librarians who teach it, should ideally be to help people learn about the way information is created and spreads, and to restore faith in expertise. She notes that the distrust of media and science fanned in recent times by people in power could be countered if people learned that there are professional standards and systems of fact checking and review in media and science and that legitimate experts rely on these standards and systems.

Which is great, except that there are plenty of “news” and “science” organizations that seem legitimate and actually are nothing more than propaganda machines. This week I learned an excellent lesson in this: a database my library subscribes to that is designed to present “sides” of an issue to students, CQ Researcher, has an essay by the president of the National Vaccine Information Center as the “con” argument on the “Vaccine Controversies” page. First of all, the title of the page is clickbaity. There is no controversy: the scientific evidence that vaccines save lives and prevent suffering is well established. As is the evidence that vaccines are incredibly safe. Far fewer people are harmed by vaccines every year than say, guns.

Even more troubling, to me, than the headline, is that the National Vaccine Information Center is a misinformation machine that accepts millions of dollars in antivaxxer donations. Their propaganda ads have raised the ire of several medical and public health associations. Their misleading information is counter to any scientific evidence. And yet there they are, in a database in my library (don’t worry, I am not renewing).

Do you know how many times I have heard faculty say or have seen in assignments “use library materials, not the internet?” People get uncomfortable when I say to a class that it’s not that simple. As recent events have shown, there are media outlets whose entire reason for being is to present a particular set of alternative facts that support the basest false narratives — if you think I’m being cagey it’s because I refuse to include the actual lies here in this post that recently threatened the democratic process in America. And yes you can find these news outlets indexed in databases and find the full text of these counterfactual “reports” at your library. Which is part of Fister’s argument . . . look hard enough (or even not very hard at all, depending on the topic) and you’ll find evidence for whatever you want to find it for.

Today I learned in Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent newsletter that there is a historical reason for this. We had a “Fairness Doctrine” in America, which “required any outlet that held a federal broadcast license to present issues honestly, equitably, and with balance.” During the Reagan administration, the FCC decided this doctrine was not in the public interest.

So, if anyone can pretend to be a source of “information” and send out press releases and ads that masquerade as facts, and if the internet makes the reach of this kind of nonsense endless, and if this problem is magnified by being repeated not only in social media but in other media for reasons we’ll get into in a minute, or in a misguided attempt to present “both sides,” so that people can find evidence for anything, what can be done?

Fister has a few suggestions, starting with “being willing to take a strong stand on behalf of ethical research practices, the voices of qualified experts, and the value of information systems that judiciously vet and validate information, along with a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.” She also advocates for teaching people about “ethical frameworks and daily practices of truth-seeking institutions such as science, scholarship, and journalism” as opposed to those “firmly grounded in beliefs about individualism, capitalism, and consumerism.”

For Fister that second category is social media companies, but I’d say the problem is more extensive. Any media companies, even those that try to adhere to standards and principles to seek truth, are part of our socioeconomic system, so they are also grounded in capitalism and consumerism. On any given day, the challenge for the average information consumer is figuring out which content at any one company was created with ethical frameworks of truth seeking in mind and which were created with an eye to keeping paying customers (subscribers, viewers, listeners, watchers, advertisers) satisfied. I’ll grant that there are patterns and trends to spot — outlets that are more (or less) dedicated to truth than others. But the information ecosystem is incredibly complicated, and even experienced researchers and journalists have to watch out for bullshit.

Which is why I like Mike Caulfield’s work. On his Infodemic blog, he explains his SIFT method:

“Over the past four years, I have worked with students and faculty to identify the core skills and habits that students and citizens are missing that leave them vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation on the web. We have organized them into a model called SIFT: Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context. We call these “moves” and we tie each one to a couple simple skills you can usually execute in 30 seconds or less. You can learn all the moves and associated skills in less than an hour, and our work with students indicates that these skills will make a dramatic difference in your ability to sort fact from fiction on the web (and everything in between).”

He starts with Stop. Why? Because media of all kinds, even media created by organizations that claim to adhere to the principles Fister champions, is designed to grab our attention, to elicit an emotional response. If we use the SIFT method, we can check our emotions, consider not only the source, but the competing coverage of the topic at hand, and try to find out more about the claims. It works.

That said it takes time, effort, and as Fister notes, a belief that there is a truth, or, as Fister says (and I know I’m repeating this, but it bears repeating) “a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.”

The question is do enough people have that? And even if they do, can they resist the powerful psychological manipulation technology companies employ to hook us on online content that is then designed to play on our emotions?

It’s easier if you stop reading this and turn off your device.

What do we do?

I got into a discussion with a friend who knows I left Facebook last summer because of their abysmal response to the civil rights audit that indicates they uphold white supremacy through their inability or unwillingness to stop hate groups and misinformation. She shared a post our mutual friend wrote the day after the domestic terrorist/white supremacist attack on the Capitol this week. She wanted to talk about several things, but one of them was what I thought we should do.

Well, for one, we have to all face what so many commentators noted this week: this IS America. We are a country where black and brown people earn less, where white privilege is encoded in our laws and policies, and where law enforcement supports white supremacy either tacitly or actively, as broadcast around the world on January 6.

We also have to face the fact that as I saw in a Twitter post this weekend, people who embrace untruths in spite of overwhelming evidence are no longer the fringe and seem to be incapable of examining information to discern truth. For example, people who believe Coronavirus conspiracy theories even though millions of people are sick and have died. Or believe election results are inaccurate, even though election officials, judges, and Justice Department personnel (including many, many conservatives) have confirmed that the election was conducted and results tallied fairly and accurately. While some news outlets are quick to point out that a majority of Americans DO trust the election results (around 60% depending on where you look) it’s very important not to overlook that 40% do not.

I’ve written about information pollution, filter bubbles, and information literacy here before. The idea that information literacy can backfire is not new. But we have millions of people who not only can’t seem to evaluate information critically enough to discover untruths, but also embrace misinformation. I strongly believe that some do so knowing they are spreading misinformation — not just foreign actors, but many politicians, public officials, and corporations who callously manipulate public opinion for their own benefit.

But in addition to these bad actors (who have always existed), there are also millions of people who feel confident that the untruths they embrace are true. They believe in their own ability to find truth — mostly online — in the sources they trust. And they believe others’ sources are not trustworthy — as evidenced by the anger, mistrust, and violence directed at the press during the insurrection this week and during the last four years in particular, but more generally over my lifetime as conservatives worked hard to convince their adherents that the media is too biased to believe. Progressives too believe the media is biased, for different reasons, and although that has not manifested in as much vitriol, it’s still undermining our ability as a society to find common ground, because we don’t begin with any sort of shared understanding. Let me be clear: I don’t think people shouldn’t question or hold the media accountable, but I do think wholesale mistrust of the media is unhelpful.

What should we do, my friend asked.

Talk about it, is one thing. And continue to try to teach information literacy carefully, including how information is created as well as how to evaluate it. Call on the government to direct resources towards stopping the state sponsored misinformation that sows discontent and mistrust, and disrupting hate groups’ (including white nationalists’) communications.

For me, there are two more things: I’ll try to continue to write to and call local, state, and federal officials to ask them to work on mitigating inequalities, large and small. And to actively seek to dismantle white supremacy. Neither of these is easy or straightforward. Both are pretty tedious and will involve making mistakes and having to apologize and try again. Both require a lens through which everything — including being a librarian — are viewed, to reveal injustices and opportunities to correct them. The justice lens gets dirty sometimes, or slips, or cracks, and has to be cleaned or replaced.

None of us can do this alone. And those of us who are privileged — because of our whiteness or our socioeconomic status or our gender in particular — have to listen to and learn from those whose privilege has been systematically diminished. And then we have to act. As I prepare my library’s budget and consider my database renewals, I want to be sure we are spending our money on sources that not only support teaching and learning, but do so while making an effort to center Black experience and Black voices. For example, I’ve been discussing replacing CQ Researcher with my colleagues, in part because it is not making that effort.

I have no delusions that these actions are enough. But that’s my answer right now to “what should we do?”