Knowledge panels, and Wikipedia as a force for good

In my information literacy classes I frequently blow students’ minds (and faculty even more so) by praising Wikipedia. I’m a librarian, aren’t I supposed to be telling them that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source? I don’t. I tell them truthfully that I love Wikipedia, which is a community of people who agree with Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, that all humans should have access to all human knowledge. It is a great example, like citizen science project Galaxy Zoo, of the power of crowd-sourcing.

And now I’ve read that Wikipedia and many of its dedicated collaborators are working to help local newspapers be better represented on its site, which is the source of many “knowledge panels” on Google and Facebook, through a project called Newspapers on Wikipedia (NOW). In a terrifically interesting article on Medium, Eni Mustafaraj explains why this project and knowledge boxes matter.

If you’re thinking you don’t know what the heck a knowledge panel is, you do. Here’s one:

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It’s that little box that appears in the upper right part of your screen, or at the top of your results list, in Google. Mustafaraj and colleagues looked into how knowledge boxes can unduly influence publics’ understanding of news sites’ credibility. Some sites’ knowledge boxes seem to be watered-down or spiced up to make them seem more reliable or inoffensive.

Mustafaraj notes that a benefit of the NOW project is that many smaller community papers will be better represented not only on Wikipedia but also with knowledge panels, which come mainly from Wikipedia entries. So once again Wikipedia is a force for good in the struggle for information literate. There I go again, equating Wikipedia and information literacy. Yes. It’s a great place for students to learn to decide for themselves how thoroughly an article has been written, cited, and edited. It’s a place where knowledge professionals and subject matter experts converge to share what they create with all humanity. It’s a place that is democratizing access to a wider variety of news sources than most Americans are routinely exposed to.

But, as Mustafaraj explains, knowledge panels aren’t necessarily providing people with accurate information, and they may not even address a source’s reliability or accuracy. Some of the examples she provides are quite eye opening — Google and Facebook are claiming publicly to fight fake news and even have a tool —  knowledge panels — to help publics find out about sources, but these powerful companies are not always using those tools to inform. Here’s the link to Mustafaraj‘s article again in case you are too discouraged to scroll up.

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The importance of information literacy, continued

I knew it had been a little while since I posted here but didn’t realize until just now that it’s been since just before the Presidential election here in the U.S. A combination of being understaffed at work and having a lot of other things going on in my life have prevented me from taking time to blog. I’ll try to post more regularly!

In my last post, I talked about librarians’ role in educating people about filter bubbles, distorted perceptions and other information issues ahead of the election. Last week I launched a new semester of library instruction, and I’m using a new tab I created in our Evaluating Online Information LibGuide. I created this tab about evaluating news as a resource for students in the wake of a mass outcry about “fake” news. But I agree with Snopes.com, which ran a piece called “We Have A Bad News Problem, Not a Fake News Problem.” Misleading people with information is not a new problem, and the distortion of real news is as important as the fakery out there.

The message I gave my students this week — and that they responded to with enthusiasm — is that they already have the tools to spot misleading, poorly reported, distorted, or fake information because they know how to use the C.R.A.A.P. test (see the left hand tab in the LibGuide). What it boils down to is who created this website/post/article/tweet and why? What is the point — to persuade? Obscure? Confuse? Provoke? Inform? Who authored the information, on what authority, and with what kind of information to back them up?

The Computer Scientist pointed me to two episodes of a podcast we both listen to this week. These two episodes of On Being speak to the way people are feeling about online information these days. The first was with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. Popova once said literature is the original Internet, because the way literature speaks to what came before it is a kind of hyperlink. Her thoughtful approach — bringing the best of a thinking life to the medium where many people are thoughtless — is an antidote to clickbait. The other episode, from last week, is with Anil Dash. He speaks to the lack of ethics education in computer science, and the ways that the tech industry acts to create and deploy cool technological innovations without thinking through the human impact.

I think these are both things I can help my student see — the Internet, I tell them, is wonderful in many ways, but we have to be deliberate in our interaction with it, we have to be intentional and critical (in the thinking sense of that word) about what we find there, and we have to use it for good, which requires the hard work of determining what that means.

The good news? The young people I work with seem to really get this and care about it. They were really amazed by some of the things I showed them this week, including a white supremacy group’s website about MLK Jr.which appears at first glance to be a site dedicated to his memory (I refuse to link to it here) and a NYT article about a person their age who created fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and profited wildly. But their amazement was tinged with indignation of the best kind, and I feel good about this part of my work. I am hopeful that one person at a time, I can arm at least some of my students to take back their own futures from those who want to distract, numb, or fool them.

 

Creating lifelong information seekers

On a library instruction email list I read, there was a recent discussion that included an interesting point: when we teach the use of databases to college students, it’s both worthwhile and in line with our mission of producing lifelong information seekers and users to note that once students graduate, they can often access databases through their public libraries.

The thread stayed with me. First of all I like the idea of fostering a continuum of library use. There’s a natural progression from toddler story times to college library users (although we often lose them in their teens), and if we can pay it forward in academia by encouraging our students to return to their local libraries when they need information in the future, we should.

Second, I think it’s useful to think of what we’re doing in larger terms than just helping students learn what they need for the current assignment. Informed citizens are good for our country and our local communities. If we can play a part in preparing students to find, evaluate, and use information well, and also influence those students to become lifelong library users,  it will hopefully be helpful to them, good for society, and good for our profession.

As I prepare for my first full semester of library instruction, I’m going to keep these things in mind and be sure to remind students that the skills they are applying to their papers can be just as helpful later when they want to learn a new skill, research places to live or work, find out about health concerns for their parents and schools for their kids, and much more, and that their local library will be a resource for them as they go into the world. Do you talk about these kinds of things in your information literacy program? Leave a comment and share your ideas.